Investors have been tricked into a Gold Coast cryptocurrency scam that cost them almost $3 million, and for some a comfortable retirement.
More than 100 Australians were duped into thinking they would make a significant profit by a criminal syndicate posing as multiple cryptocurrency sales companies, Queensland Police allege.
But detectives believe the organisation's reach goes further than what they've uncovered, which included legitimate-looking websites and cold calls to suck in victims.
They have warned of similar traps, saying a drop in interest rates and rise in the value of cryptocurrencies has spurred investments by people who don't understand it, particularly older Australians.
"They're just being sucked in by people who are confidence men of the past, they're able to convince these people that they're actually investing in something," Detective Sergeant Kris Steadman said on Thursday.
"It's going to make retirement hard for a lot of people."
Victims invested in Exmount Holdings Group, which appeared to be legitimate with a website, call centre and sales staff.
Other companies included The Quid Pro Quo Foundation, The Atlas Group, AFG Associates Pty Ltd, tradex123, exmounttrading, atlasfxgroup and amazonaus.
Owners of those companies remain persons of interest to police.
The scammers offered their victims a trial investment, promising generous returns once they had invested more funds.
They were then given log-in details for a website to watch their investments grow.
But when they tried to withdraw the money, it wasn't there.
"Their money had gone and any attempt they made to contact one of the companies or their staff was unsuccessful," Detective Superintendent Terry Lawrence said.
Three men and two women from the Gold Coast have been charged with fraud and money laundering.
Police are still searching for more victims of the scam.
The $3 million scam is just the tip of the iceberg with Australians losing almost half a billion dollars to scammers in 2018, according to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.
"Total combined losses reported to Scamwatch and other government agencies exceeded $489 million - $149 million more than 2017," Australian Competition and Consumer Commission deputy chair Delia Rickard said.
Ms Rickard said the true amount of money lost was probably much higher, with many reluctant to report a loss to a scammer.
Investment scams are the most financially devastating scams at $86 million, an increase of more than 34 per cent compared with 2017.
Dating and romance scams also represent significant losses increasing from $42 million in 2017 to $60.5 million in 2018.
"These extraordinary losses show that scammers are causing significant financial and emotional harm to many Australians," Ms Rickard added.
"Scammers are adapting old scams to new technology, seeking payment through unusual methods and automating scam calls to increase their reach to potential victims."
In 2018, more than 378,000 scam reports were submitted to the ACCC's Scamwatch, the Australian Cybercrime Online Reporting Network, and other federal and state-based government agencies such as the Australian Taxation Office.
Australian Associated Press