Australia's consumer watchdog has told the government its messaging and communication around the COVID-19 vaccination rollout needs to be more consistent, after half the complaints it has received about scams relating to the vaccine have turned out to be legitimate communications.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission says it has received 129 reports mentioning COVID-19 vaccines up to May 31, but of those reports, 66 were not scams, but communications from a legitimate source.
In a submission to a parliamentary committee investigating vaccine-related fraud and security risks, the commission said one of the high-risk issues in the pandemic was the impersonation of government websites and communications.
"Consumers and businesses are unable to easily differentiate between legitimate government communications, trusted organisations and fake communications, making them more susceptible to scammers," the submission said.
While actual scams related to the vaccine rollout are not a significant problem at the moment, the commission said "we have received many reports from people who thought that a legitimate government message was an approach from a scammer".
The ACCC and other organisations warn people not to click on links in text messages from unknown senders to protect against potential scams, but government organisations have sent texts with links in them, including two that went to the whole population in early 2020.
Some of the legitimate communications that were reported to the ACCC as scams included an email from a medical booking system used by a medical centre that called for people to register their details to get on the practice's list for a vaccine. There was also a text message that used someone's first name and said "we are approved for COVID-19 vaccine delivery to eligible patients" and included a phone number but not the name of the practice it was connected to.
Another text told recipients the vaccination clinic urgently required a person's name and Medicare number and asked for a response via text message, but upon investigation it appeared to come from a legitimate source.
"There is currently no central place a consumer can go to check if a communication they have received is legitimately from the government," the watchdog said.
"Government websites, even when created by contract or in partnership with the private sector, should use the .gov.au domain wherever possible."
Research Fellow at the Murdoch Children's Research Institute Dr Jessica Kaufman said it made sense that people would report such communications that they have already been told to be suspicious of.
"There is not enough characters to explain where you come from [in text messages] and we are told to avoid scams that come through text messages, so the way the government uses text messaging needs to be very careful," she said.
"It's reassuring people are reporting these things, I don't want to discourage them."
An expert in using communication strategies to promote vaccination, Dr Kaufman said it was difficult for governments to give consistent information, as official information has changed throughout the pandemic as more has become known about the virus.
"That is a challenge of the whole pandemic, information does keep changing."
However centralising communication from one source wasn't the answer to making sure people got consistent information from a source they know they can trust.
"To some extent we need information to come from different sources, because not everyone is going to get it from the federal government on TV, we need information to reach us where we are."
Government entities at state and federal level, and entities involved in the rollout needed to be given guidance on how to communicate with the public without "looking scammy" was the way to address the issue, Dr Kaufman said.
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