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Some 42,000 scams hit Australians last year, more than double that received in 2009, according to the competition watchdog.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) received about 20,000 reports of scams during the 12 months of 2009. This number skyrocketed during 2010 as scammers turned to online fraud, according to the regulator.

The ACCC’s report (PDF) said the internet was responsible for 45 per cent of scams reported during 2010. Reported scams delivered online (including internet and email) increased from 14,101 in 2009 to 19,074 in 2010.

The cost of scams to consumers was as high as $4 million a pop, according to the report, with 16 per cent of consumers and businesses that reported the scams claiming to have been hit to the tune of $1 million to $4 million in the hip pocket. But the total financial losses from cybercrime and scams were down from $70 million in 2009 to $63 million in 2010, according to the report, although it cautioned that actual costs were likely to be higher as most scams go unreported.

“The losses reported to the ACCC represent only a part of the overall cost to the Australian community, as many scams go unreported and indirect losses are also significant,” ACCC deputy chair Peter Kell said.

The acceleration of use of cheaper Voice over IP services was helping scams along, he said.

“It appeared that many of these calls may have originated offshore and it’s likely that they are taking advantage of cheap or free VoIP services.”

The watchdog also cited a rise in scams impersonating government departments and big business.

Since late last year, reports have surfaced of phone scammers masquerading as the Queensland Police service and Microsoft to defraud users. In the latter case, would-be Microsoft technicians had claimed a victim’s computer is infected by a virus and offered a paid fix.

Kell said the “debilitating personal effect of scams” is a driving force behind its work to combat fraud through the Australasian Consumer Fraud Taskforce which incorporates 22 government agencies.

In one notable online scam reported last year, overseas fraudsters had managed to sell a man’s Perth investment property using stolen credentials.

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