Cross gives victims of fraud a voice

QUT Professor Cassandra Cross at desk | Newsreel
QUT Professor Cassandra Cross wants to give victims of fraud a voice. | Photo: Supplied by QUT

By Elissa Lawrence

The devastating impact of fraud has far-reaching consequences. QUT’s Professor Cassandra Cross has made it her mission to give victims of fraud a voice and advocate for change.

It’s that little blue link so tempting to click.

The email too good to be true.

A text message that makes you think twice, or a sale item never delivered.

Every day, all over the world, millions of people are targeted by fraud.

A significant global problem, fraud crimes – encompassing credit card, investment or romance fraud, identity theft, extortion schemes, sham product transactions, false billing, data breaches, or a surprise lottery win – are on the rise and are an insidious part of modern life.

The fake messages, phone calls, emails, websites, and advertisements can be difficult to spot, and the amount of money lost to fraud is staggeringly high.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission finds reported losses in Australia reached $3.1 billion in 2022 (up from $2 billion in 2021 and $851 million in 2020).

It is also estimated that less than one third of all fraud offences are ever reported to authorities.

And that’s just financial losses. Fraud victims often suffer a wide range of life-changing, non-financial effects that can include physical and emotional deterioration, depression, relationship breakdown, unemployment, homelessness, even suicide.

Often, too, there will be a sense of shame and embarrassment, humiliation, degradation, guilt, and, particularly for older victims, fear of being disowned by their families or their mental capacity questioned.

Professor Cassandra Cross, from QUT’s School of Justice, is a leading internationally recognised scholar in fraud, financial crime, and cybercrime, and has dedicated her career to educating the community about its devastating effects.

Despite significant resources being directed towards combating fraud in Australia – with a National Anti-Scam Centre set up in July 2023, and the first dedicated federal Minister for Cyber Security – Professor Cross says more needs to be done.

“If you look at the statistics, pure and simple, it’s such a significant problem. Yet, the amount of time and resources that are invested into it are not commensurate with other things,’’ Professor Cross said.

“Fraud sees millions of victims lose millions of dollars every year with livelihoods lost and lives destroyed.

“The United Kingdom has elevated fraud to the same level of security threat as terrorism. In Australia, the current government has been putting more intention, focus and resources towards the issue. But, based on the need and the statistics, more needs to be done.’’

A defining moment

A career specialising in fraud was not always on the radar for Professor Cross.

In fact, white-collar crime was her least favourite subject in her justice degree at QUT. But as a “rule-following kid’’, a strong interest in justice has always been present, blooming with her enjoyment of a high school Legal Studies subject at Mansfield State High School.

“My passion has always been in the justice field,’’ Professor Cross said.

“I’ve always had an interest in people, and I really love researching, finding things out and writing. I also love being able to talk to people and a lot of my research is directly talking to victims.’’

Professor Cross completed her PhD at QUT while working with the Queensland Police Service (QPS) as a civilian research and policy officer in the Community Safety and Crime Prevention Branch.

It was here she was asked to work on a project interviewing 72 senior Queenslanders across the state about their experiences with fraud.

Despite initial doubts, from her first victim interview, she knew it was a turning point in her career.

“The very first interview I did with a fraud victim was with an older gentleman, and we were sitting at his kitchen table in his house. It was a defining moment,’’ Professor Cross said.

“This man hadn’t been able to express himself before and a big thing with many fraud victims is the shame, embarrassment, and the stigma they feel.

“That conversation made me realise how much of a problem this was, how much we didn’t know about the problem, and how misunderstood it was.

“People openly shared some fairly distressing experiences about how they had been victimised or lost money and the consequences of that. It was pivotal in my career. Some interviews very much stick with you.’’

An international authority

Professor Cross is a one-university academic, having studied her undergraduate degree at QUT, then PhD.

After her role with the QPS, she returned to QUT as a lecturer in the degree from which she had graduated.

She is now Associate Dean (Learning and Teaching) in the Faculty of Creative Industries, Education and Social Justice.

The QUT connection extends to her younger sister, Erin Rayment, who also received her PhD at QUT and is currently the university’s Vice-President (Business Development).

Professor Cross also met her husband of 17 years, Lachlan Cross, a deputy production manager at Queensland Theatre, while they were both studying at QUT.

But any jokes aside, (“I am QUT,’’ she deadpans), she is immensely proud of her QUT affiliation.

“I’m very happy here at QUT,’’ she said.

“I’ve got the autonomy and ability to do the research that I love and that I feel is making a difference, so I don’t see why I would trade it or give it up.’’

Professor Cross has carved out an international reputation as the world’s leading researcher in the field of fraud.

She has spoken at academic, government and law enforcement events across Australia, UK, the Netherlands, Spain, Germany, USA, Canada, Hong Kong, Argentina, South Korea, and New Zealand, and in 2017, she co-authored (with Mark Button, Professor of Criminology at University of Portsmouth) the book Cyber Frauds, Scams and their Victims.

She has won research funding of more than $1.5 million that has allowed her to explore policing, prevention and support of victims and collaborate with partners across banking, law enforcement, government, and non-government agencies.

For more than a decade, Professor Cross has also advocated for changes to the Victims of Crime Assistance Act, for support to be expanded from victims of violent crime to also include victims of fraud.

Her research has examined the psychological abuse and coercive control suffered by domestic violence victims and says defrauders use many similar techniques to exert power, control, and manipulation.

Call it for what it is

Scam. It’s a short, neat little word that has become part of the everyday lexicon in Australia and the world.

But Professor Cross believes the word trivialises a serious crime.

However, Professor Cross knows she is up against it, with the word in common use in official contexts.

In Australia, for example, Scamwatch is run by the Australian government’s National Anti-Scam Centre. There’s also Scams Awareness Week.

But Professor Cross is doing her best to label these crimes for what they are. “I very much dislike the term scam,’’ she said.

“The term very much trivialises and minimises what is essentially fraud. When you think of a scam, for many people, it’s kind of just this trivial text message, it doesn’t have that much of an impact.

“But at the end of the day, it’s deception, it’s obtaining financial reward by having deceived somebody. We should be calling it out for what it is, and we should be using language that identifies it as such.’’

Professor Cross hasn’t been a victim of fraud herself, but, like anyone, is not immune from the barrage of text messages and emails trying to trick her.

And some, she admits, do give her pause for thought.

She recalls a text message flagging a problem with her Linkt toll road account.

It came at a time when she had a genuine situation where she hadn’t updated a credit card on her Linkt account.

“I did look at that one for a moment as being genuine,’’ she said.

“But in the end, I logged into my account to double check, and I realised it was in fact a fraudulent message.

“That’s how these things work, these blanket approaches…they use volume to their advantage. The defrauders only need a few people to respond out of 1000 text messages for it to be worth their while.’’

And that’s her message – everybody can be deceived.

Human vulnerability and emotion mean no one is immune and fraud affects people from all walks of life.

“I feel privileged to be in a position where people will open up to me and share intimate and personal details about their devastating experiences,’’ Professor Cross said.

“The responsibility for me is to take on their stories and experiences and try to make change, to use my platform to give them a voice.’’

Elissa Lawrence is a Senior Research Communications Officer at QUT.

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