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Cross, Cassandra; Richards, Kelly --- "The 'ACA Effect': Examining How Current Affairs Programs Shape Victim Understandings and Responses to Online Fraud" [2015] CICrimJust 19; (2015) 27(2) Current Issues in Criminal Justice 163

The ‘ACA Effect’: Examining

How Current Affairs Programs

Shape Victim Understandings and Responses to Online Fraud

Cassandra Cross[*] and Kelly Richards[†]


In recent years, numerous current affairs stories on online fraud victimisation have been broadcast on Australian television. These stories typically feature highly organised, international ‘sting’ operations, in which alleged offenders are arrested and investigated by law enforcement. These portrayals of police responses influence the expectations that some online fraud victims have about how their individual cases will be handled by law enforcement. Based on interviews with 80 online fraud victims, this article argues that a narrow media portrayal of online fraud by television current affairs programs — termed the ‘ACA effect’ — informs victims’ understandings of online fraud and their responses to it. In particular, current affairs programs influence what victims of online fraud expect from police. The article further demonstrates that current affairs programs present themselves as de facto law enforcement agencies, to which victims who receive an unsatisfactory response from police might turn. Overall, the article highlights the importance of current affairs programs portraying a more realistic image of official responses to online fraud.

Keywords: online fraud – victims – media representationpolice –



In the first episode of ABC documentary series Head First, documentary-maker Sabour Bradley (2013) meets a number of victims of online fraud through a support group operated by the Queensland Police Service. One victim, 30-year-old Michael from country Queensland, has lost A$40 000 to an online romance fraud. Part way through the episode, moved by Michael’s losses, Bradley resolves to ‘go to Ghana and take down Michael’s scammer’.

In the following scenes, Bradley receives detailed coaching from senior detectives at the Queensland Police Fraud and Corporate Crime Group (‘FCCG’) (now the Fraud and Cybercrime Group) on how to assume Michael’s online identity in order to lure in the fraudsters. Under the guise of their ongoing relationship, plans are made for Bradley to travel to Ghana (posing as Michael) on the premise of wanting to invest money in land. After a number of days in Accra, Ghana, Bradley is joined by the Superintendent of the FCCG, who ‘immediately takes control’. Viewers are shown footage of the Superintendent meeting with an officer from Ghana’s Organised and Economic Crime Squad. Following this, an elaborate sting is set up to catch the fraud perpetrators. Bradley, pretending to be Michael, meets with the perpetrators in a hotel room to discuss his potential property investment. The room has been planted with numerous hidden cameras and microphones. At least seven Ghanaian police officers, and the Queensland Superintendent, listen to the meeting from a room set up next door to Bradley’s hotel room and from the hotel’s foyer. After capturing on camera the evidence from the perpetrators that he has been coached to collect and uttering a

pre-determined code word, Bradley is rescued from the situation by the Ghanaian police. The two perpetrators are filmed being escorted from the hotel by police, having been arrested. Viewers also see footage of the Ghanaian police investigation of the two suspects in an interrogation room. At the end of the episode, viewers are informed that the likely sentence for the two men is three years in prison.


Media and popular culture have a strong influence on how individuals understand crime and the criminal justice system (Dowler et al 2006). In recent years, scholars have turned their attention to the influence that television shows focused on crime investigation have on individual perceptions of the criminal justice system, most notably through the example of the United States (‘US’) production CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, in what has consequently been coined the ‘CSI effect’ (Maeder and Corbett 2015). The premise of the CSI effect is that consumers of fictional crime television are influenced by (unrealistic) portrayals of crime (and responses to crime) in the media and that this in turn affects their perceptions of the criminal justice system. In particular, the focus of the CSI effect has been on the use of forensic evidence presented in court cases compared with what is seen on television and its influence on jury decision-making in determining the guilt or innocence of a defendant (Baskin and Sommers 2010).

This article extends the premise of the CSI effect to the topic of online fraud in Australia. We define ‘online fraud’ as incidents involving deception in order to obtain an advantage (financial or otherwise) (Cross et al 2014:1). The findings presented are based on semi-structured qualitative interviews with 80 individuals who had reported online fraud losses (resulting from romance fraud, investment fraud or other similar approaches) of at least A$10 000 to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (‘ACCC’). Using the narratives of victims, this article will argue that a narrow media portrayal of online fraud in Australia by television shows — termed the ‘ACA effect’ (after Australian television program A Current Affair) — informs both victims’ understandings of online fraud and their responses to it. The article critically examines victims’ varied sources of information about online fraud prior to their victimisation. Many victims interviewed for the study identified media sources of information, particularly current affairs shows such as A Current Affair, as informing their understandings of online fraud.

The article will highlight one common victim (mis)understanding of police responses to online fraud, shaped by the ACA effect: that elaborate police operations are routinely able to arrest suspected offenders. This (inaccurate) perception often frames victims’ beliefs about how law enforcement and other authorities should respond to their cases, and creates unrealistic expectations of these agencies’ capacities and willingness to respond to individual cases. As a corollary, victims regularly turned to current affairs programs seeking a response to their complaint; however, this strategy was also routinely unsatisfactory. Overall, this article argues that while media coverage of online fraud is positive in that it draws attention to this poorly understood social problem, the way it is typically portrayed is problematic as it creates unrealistic expectations among victims.


This article is taken from a larger research project that examined online fraud victimisation (see Cross et al forthcoming). The research utilised a qualitative approach, employing

in-depth, semi-structured, (primarily) face-to-face interviews with victims of online fraud (n=80) who had reported losses of A$10 000 or more to the ACCC.

Sampling and recruitment

The ACCC sent a letter and/or email to all individuals who had reported to the ACCC’s SCAMWatch website/hotline (<

reportascam/>) a loss resulting from online fraud of A$10 000 or more, and who resided within a radius of approximately 100 kilometres (approximately a two-hour drive) of one of Australia’s five most populated cities: Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth or Adelaide. While reports of online fraud victimisation had been made to the ACCC from all eight of Australia’s jurisdictions, numbers were much lower in the less populated jurisdictions (Tasmania, the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory). Given that, in social science research, a response rate as low as 20 per cent is common, and that response rates of fraud victims tend to be lower again (Smith 2008b), it was deemed unfeasible to conduct the research outside of the five major metropolitan areas of Australia. The letters/emails from the ACCC related to the period between 1 July 2012 and 30 June 2014 (for Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne) and between 1 January 2011 and 30 June 2014 (for Adelaide and Perth)

To be eligible to participate, victims of online fraud needed to:

• have been the victim of an online fraud and reported the fraud to the ACCC’s SCAMWatch website/hotline during the time periods outlined above;

• have suffered financial losses of A$10 000 or more;

• be aged 18 years or older;

• have indicated to the ACCC at the time of their report that they were willing to be contacted by the ACCC in future;

• be a resident of one of the five geographical locations identified above; and

• be capable of providing informed consent to participate in the research.

Victims contacted by letter and/or email were provided with information about the study and asked to contact one of the authors by telephone or email if they had questions about the research or wanted to take part. Interviews were then scheduled with those victims who agreed to participate.

Data collection

Semi-structured qualitative interviews were undertaken with all 80 participants in the study. In most cases, these took place in person. A few participants opted to be interviewed via telephone instead for personal or practical reasons. In all cases, both researchers conducted the interviews. In addition to a small number of closed-ended (for example, demographic) questions, participants were asked a series of open-ended questions about their experiences of online fraud victimisation. With the permission of most interviewees (a small number refused: n=3), interviews were digitally recorded. Where the participant refused recording, the interviewers took detailed handwritten notes (see further Cross et al forthcoming).

The participants

The 80 individuals interviewed for the study ranged in age from 30 years to 77 years, with an average age of 56. Forty-six (58 per cent) were male and 34 (42 per cent) were female. Participants identified as being from a wide range of countries of birth, predominantly Australia (68 per cent), the United Kingdom (‘UK’) (11 per cent) and New Zealand (five per cent).

Participants reported having been the victim of a wide range of online fraud types. Approximately one-third were victims of romance fraud, in which an individual is defrauded during the course of what he or she believes to be a legitimate romantic relationship (Rege 2009). Approximately one-third were involved investment opportunities, indicative of advance fee fraud approaches (in which a victim sends a small amount of money in the hope of receiving a large sum of money at a later date) (Ross and Smith 2011). The remainder were a combination of approaches that included other advance fee fraud approaches, such as lottery and inheritance schemes. It is difficult to assign individuals to specific categories of fraud as, in some cases, victims experienced a number of different approaches and the initial approach morphed into another one (for example, a romance fraud merged into an investment fraud).

Within the current study, victims’ financial losses ranged from A$10 000 to approximately A$500 000. In many cases, and for a number of reasons, participants could not calculate and/or articulate exactly how much money they had lost to online fraud. Often the losses had been incurred over a lengthy period of time (up to several years). In other cases, the victim had simply lost track of how much money he or she had lost. Victims also appeared to calculate their losses in varied ways, with some including the costs associated with pursuing a civil case against the perpetrator, for example. This mirrors the difficult nature of accurately estimating the cost of fraud to individuals and society and to the economy more broadly (Levi and Burrows 2008).

Ethical considerations

The study discussed in this article was approved by Queensland University of Technology’s Human Research Ethics Committee. Given the sensitive nature of the topic area and the vulnerability of crime victims, it was important to ensure that participants’ confidentiality was maintained, and that participants were treated with sensitivity and respect, as well as given as much control as possible over the interview process. As such, the research team provided each potential participant with detailed information about the study and invited them to ask questions about what participation would involve. All victims who agreed to take part chose: whether to be interviewed in person or over the telephone; if in person, the interview location (these included individuals’ houses and public meeting places such as cafes and parks); and whether to have the interview digitally recorded. They could refuse to answer any question. Participant confidentiality has been assured by the de-identification of interview transcripts and by using numbers rather than participants’ names or locations in the reporting of the results (see Cross et al forthcoming).

Data analysis

Interviews were transcribed verbatim and imported into computer-assisted qualitative data analysis software NVIVO for coding. Coding was undertaken by both researchers, and involved both open and axial coding. Interview data were analysed thematically (see Noaks and Wincup 2004), ‘identifying, analysing and reporting patterns (themes) within data’ (Braun and Clark cited in Vaismoradi et al 2013:400). Based on the approach of Schofield et al (2011), each interviewer individually identified key themes and sub-themes in the data, then the interviewers worked together to jointly analyse the data. Key findings from this thematic analysis have been presented elsewhere (Cross et al forthcoming).

Online fraud: Background and context

The problem of online fraud in Australia is significant. The ACCC (2015:1) stated that, in 2014, Australians reported losses totalling almost A$82 million as a result of fraudulent activity. This is likely to be only a small percentage of actual fraud losses, as the ACCC is one of many bodies that can receive complaints of fraud (Button et al 2012), many victims do not realise that they have been victims (Cross et al 2014), and fraud has a very low rate of reporting (Smith 2007; Smith 2008a). In addition, these figures only give an indication of direct financial losses and do not encompass the indirect financial costs associated with fraud victimisation (such as health, medical and legal costs).

Fraud can be defined as an ‘invitation, request, notification or offer, designed to obtain someone’s personal information or money or otherwise obtain a financial benefit by deceptive means’ (ABS 2008:5), or ‘the intentional deception or attempted deception of an individual with the promise of goods, services, or things of value that do not exist or in other ways are misrepresented’ (Titus 2001:57). The key element is deception, whereby the victim is coerced and/or manipulated into providing money, personal details or some other item of value under false pretences. Fraud is not new, but the evolution of technology has enabled it to be perpetrated in new ways (Grabosky and Smith 1998). The internet has significantly increased the reach of offenders to initiate contact with potential victims via email, social media and social networking platforms. Therefore, as previously stated, fraud in an online context can be defined as ‘the experience of an individual who has responded through the use of the internet to a dishonest invitation, request, notification or offer by providing personal information or money that has led to a financial or non-financial loss or impact of some kind’ (Cross et al 2014:1). This definition recognises the role that the virtual environment has on facilitating communication between victim and offender/s. It also recognises that the impacts of fraud can be far more diverse and devastating than monetary losses alone. Rather, the harm suffered by fraud victims extends far beyond any financial loss and can incorporate physical harm, emotional/psychological harm, a sense of betrayal, and relationship breakdown (ASIC 2002a, 2002b; Button et al 2009a; Button et al 2009c; Deem 2000; Graycar and James 2001; Kusic cited in O’Connell 2003; Marsh 2004). In extreme cases, victims have taken their own lives (Cross et al 2014). Overall, online fraud can have a devastating impact on an individual victim.

The ‘CSI effect’

The term ‘CSI effect’ refers to a concern that emerged in the mid-2000s that television crime dramas would give jurors increased (and unrealistic) expectations about the nature of evidence presented in criminal trials. More specifically, concerns have focused on jurors’ unrealistic expectations about the forensic evidence presented. As Holmgren and Fordham (2011:S63) put it, ‘the shows’ fictional portrayal of crime scene investigations have prompted fears that jurors will demand DNA and other forensic evidence before they will convict, and have unrealistic expectations of that evidence’.

Research clearly shows that the media does have an impact on community members’ beliefs about and expectations of the criminal justice system (Dowler et al 2006; Dowler and Zawilski 2007; Hohl 2011; Mutz and Nir 2010), but this appears to be mediated by a range of factors including demographic characteristics (Callanan and Rosenberger 2011; Dowler and Zawilski 2007), prior personal contact with the criminal justice system (Callanan and Rosenberger 2011) and the extent of individuals’ viewing (Boda and Szabó 2011). However, despite a substantial body of research into the CSI effect (see, for example, Baskin and Sommers 2010; Hayes and Levett 2012; Holmgren and Fordham 2011; Huey 2010; Maeder and Corbett 2015; Weaver et al 2012), there is little consensus about its existence. Certainly, there is little evidence that it has influenced jury decision-making in the way initially feared by prosecutors and the judiciary (Holmgren and Fordham 2011; Huey 2010).

Nonetheless, research does suggest that televised crime programs influence individuals’ expectations of the police. Dowler and Zawilski (2007) randomly surveyed 1011 American adults about their attitudes towards police misconduct and found that those who frequently viewed police dramas held significantly different views of police than those who did not. Research also clearly shows that police themselves believe that crime television creates unrealistic expectations of the police on the part of victims, victims’ families and witnesses (Huey 2010; Maeder and Corbett 2015). This is the case in relation to both crime fiction (Dowler and Zawilski 2007; Huey 2010; Maeder and Corbett 2015) and non-fiction (Callanan and Rosenberger 2011; Dowler and Zawilski 2007). In fact, it appears that factual crime television, such as news and documentaries, has more of an influence than fictional crime programs (Callanan and Rosenberger 2011), and that crime fiction that appears less glamorised and more realistic may have a stronger influence than more obviously fictional and unrealistic shows (Mader and Corbett 2015; Schniderman 2013). The finding from this body of literature most relevant for the current study is that televised images of policing ‘create unrealistic public expectations about real policing and disappointment when police did not perform like their media portrayals’ (Dowler and Zawilski 2007:194). Huey (2010:59) claims that ‘media images of the detective frequently cast investigators as cerebral analytical types who cogitate over evidence ... [or as] ... knocking down doors and “busting perps”’. Her study of 31 Canadian police investigators found that an overwhelming majority (n=28) perceived that such images influence the public’s expectations of whether and how they investigate alleged offences.

With this as a foundation, the remainder of this article examines how the news media (through televised current affairs programs) has influenced online fraud victims’ expectations of police. It details the negative experiences individuals had with police and other organisations in reporting their victimisation and how this in turn led them to pursue their complaints with current affairs programs, premised on an expectation that they would deliver a quasi-enforcement response similar to that which victims had previously observed on television.

Reporting online fraud victimisation

It is well established that a large majority of fraud incidents are not reported (Copes et al 2001; van Wyk and Mason 2001). Studies from the UK, US and Canada estimate that less than

one-third of victims report fraud victimisation to authorities (Mason and Benson 1996; Schoepfer and Piquero 2009; Titus et al 1995) and this is estimated to be even lower for online fraud incidents (Smith 2008b). Reasons for the non-reporting of fraudulent incidents include: not being sure of whether an offence has occurred; a sense of shame and embarrassment about being a victim; a lack of knowledge about who to report the incident to; a sense of guilt; and a belief that nothing can be done about it (Button et al 2013; Jorna and Hutchings 2012; Kerley and Copes 2002; Schoepfer and Piquero 2009; Smith 2008a; UN 2013).

Most victims of online fraud who do report the incident receive an unsatisfactory response from police and other authorities (Button et al 2009a, 2009b, 2009c; Button et al 2013). This stems from a variety of factors, the most dominant of which is termed the ‘merry-go-round effect’ (Button et al 2013). Fraud is unique in that there are a number of agencies to which victims can report, including law enforcement, consumer protection, and banks, which cover both the criminal justice and civil systems. The existence of this ‘fraud justice network’ (Button et al 2013) means that victims are frequently passed from agency to agency, unable to find any single agency willing to accept their complaints and assist them with their cases. This is a strong source of frustration and anger for many fraud victims (Cross et al forthcoming).

In the current study, participants reported their allegations of fraud to SCAMWatch and other agencies for two main reasons: to obtain an individual sense of justice (through the initiation of an investigation of some sort); and to prevent it from happening to others (Cross et al forthcoming). In both cases, victims reported their incidents based on the beliefs that they had been wronged, crimes had been committed, and some actions needed to be taken (either for themselves or for others) (Cross et al forthcoming). Regardless of the underlying motivation to report the incident, every victim had an expectation that there would be some sort of action taken in response to his or her complaint. While not all victims assumed that a positive outcome would result from a police investigation (such as an arrest or getting their money back), they did expect, at a minimum, the ability to have their complaints taken seriously by the agencies taking the reports. However, this was rarely the case.

Victims who were interviewed frequently described their experiences of the ‘merry-go-round effect’ with little satisfactory resolution of their complaints. They experienced a great deal of frustration as a result of being referred from agency to agency with no-one taking the lead in responding to their complaints. For example, victims commented that:

There was no-one. It did not matter what section of the police that I called, whether it was local or federal, state whatever there was no one there they just kept passing it onto someone else (Interview 21).

But even to try and sort out where to report it to is, you know, how many places did we try? But no-one was able to help and you get bounced from one to the other so there is no easy way of lodging a complaint (Interview 24).

So yeah, I think so far I have been to ACCC, ASIC, Office of Fair Trading in [Australian state], the police, and they kind of kept on giving me, ‘Well, you need to speak to this person.’ And I am like: ‘Do any of you guys know?’ They were all just trying to hand pass (Interview 38).

With a small number of exceptions, victims also reported a poor response from agencies to which they reported, particularly police, including being dismissed or ignored, told they had not been the victim of an offence, laughed at and/or blamed for the online fraud:

I said it was an investment fraud and she said she had much more important things than that to deal with: ‘We have people robbed at knife point.’ I said, ‘[I have lost] $20 000.’ She said, ‘But you gave it away sir,’ and I said, ‘I didn’t give it away, it was an investment.’ She said it was voluntary and I gave it away. I ended up phoning up a few times but got nowhere (Interview 27).

The [company name] bank people said, ‘This is your fault’, because I sent the money, they said ‘We can’t do anything’ (Interview 54).

I think actually after the consumer affairs it was actually reported to the police and the police rang me and said, ‘It’s not a crime.’ I said, ‘You are joking?!’ (Interview 52).

[The police officer] said, ‘Oh I’m sorry, you’re one of the thousands who gets ripped off.’ That’s his reply to me (Interview 40).

As the above comments demonstrate, there were several instances where victims experienced direct and indirect victim blaming (Cross 2013; Cross 2015), which exacerbated the anger and frustration they were already feeling as a result of their victimisation. Of particular concern were the situations in which the victim was clearly re-traumatised by the response of the reporting agency, exemplified thus:

I expect [the police] to be sympathetic, but these two police guys they just laugh, I was humiliated. They tell me, I submitted a police report, and I made a statement and they tell me ‘[victim’s name] we cannot do anything about this with you and your lover boy in [overseas country], you just write to SCAMWatch’ (Interview 58).

The overwhelming majority of victims in the current study did not receive a satisfactory response from any agency when they attempted to report an online fraud incident (see also Button et al 2009a, 2012). As such, numerous victims were disillusioned with the criminal justice system and consequently sought an alternative to obtain an adequate response. For many, this need for action was subsequently targeted at current affairs programs, to which this article now turns.

Current affairs programs and victims’ perceptions of police responses to online fraud

Victims of online fraud rarely receive what they consider to be an adequate response from police (Button et al 2013). The expectations that many victims held of police were informed by their prior knowledge of police responses to online fraud. For some, this was gained through current affairs programs. This is further explored below.

This study found evidence of a continuum of knowledge in that victims’ understandings of online fraud prior to their own experience of victimisation ranged from ‘what’s a scam?’ to having some awareness of the different types of fraud, to being very familiar with a variety of fraud types. Victims who had some previous understanding of fraud (regardless of the type) were asked about the source of their knowledge. For almost all of the victims with previous knowledge, familiarity with fraud was derived from media exposure, predominantly from television:

Despite seeing that program on [Australian current affairs television program] Insight I was quite aware of what was out there but I was probably not prepared for it to happen to me (Interview 17).

At the time I had absolutely no experience with scammers and did not know anybody that had. I mean I had seen a little bit on the telly, but I don’t think it had really sunk in (Interview 39).

I mean I watch A Current Affair, I knew they were doing it like saying ‘give me your bank accounts’ ... A Current Affair said thousands of people give money like this but under different scams (Interview 47).

I have seen it on TV as well, some of them [offenders] really take a lot of money off people (Interview 46).

I think if there’s more exposure of these people, and like that A Current Affair that made you aware of some of the scams, I think that helps the public (Interview 6).

Importantly, the media was also a source of knowledge regarding the ability of police to take action against online fraud offenders. Victims recounted instances in which they had seen ‘sting’ operations on television of police investigating and arresting alleged offenders involved in fraud:

It’s funny because I didn’t see the program but my son told me that before we went down to report this that there was an Australian Federal Police thing shown on TV where they were busting some criminal organisation in Ukraine with the Ukraine police. And how they were cracking down on these international criminals. ... My son told me there had been this program on where they had been following up overseas in Ukraine working with Ukraine police to bust these gangs who are sort of scamming. Apparently when they went in he said they found computers all over the place and money was just stacked up. Because all this money had come in and it was there. They couldn’t legitimately sort of put it in the banks. There were just wads of money sort of piled up, my son was telling me (Interview 49).

Further to this, victims’ prior media exposure to these operations clearly shaped their current expectations of how police would respond to their particular incidents:

I was watching a program on I think it was [Australian current affairs television program] 60 Minutes one day; they had all these things of what is happening. And they sort of walking into a room where all of these Nigerians were sitting down with laptops, around them, and they sort of like, it was all a scam thing where they were working on getting people’s cards and money and everything ... I really hope that with everything that has happened, they have caught quite a few overseas (Interview 41).

It’s getting a little bit of relief knowing they [police] have caught a couple of the culprits but it has not stopped. You just have to look at A Current Affair and the fraud and the scams that are going on left, right and centre (Interview 19).

If they [A Current Affair] can find them why can’t the Feds [the Australian Federal Police]? (Interview 38).

Overall, many victims cited the media, particularly television, as a prime contributor to their knowledge about fraud. Current affairs programs also shaped their perceptions of what actions police might be able to take against potential offenders. In line with the work of Huey (2010), Dowler and Zawilski (2007) and Maeder and Corbett (2015), these findings suggest that expectations of police responses are shaped by victims’ prior viewing of television programs that depict police responding to complaints in a particular manner. Participants in the current study frequently expected police to respond in ways similar to those they had seen on current affairs programs, including coordinating international ‘sting’ operations to disrupt organised crime networks and conducting thorough investigations to identify, arrest and prosecute alleged perpetrators. In reality, this is extremely unlikely, due (among other reasons) to: the vast number of reports of online fraud the police receive; the perception on the part of police that individuals’ monetary losses are minor and that other crimes are more worthy of police priority (Doig et al 2001); and the logistical challenges associated with the transnationality of online fraud (Button 2012).

To be clear, it was not the case that all victims in the study had these expectations of police; some held more realistic views of what police would be able to do in response to their report. Nonetheless, a subset of those interviewed clearly held unrealistic expectations of police based on their exposure to current affairs programs dealing with this subject matter. Following the acronym often used to describe one of Australia’s longest-running and most-watched current affairs programs, A Current Affair, we dub this phenomenon the ‘ACA effect’. Evidence of the ACA effect and its impact on victims of online fraud is presented in the following section.

Current affairs programs as quasi-law enforcement agencies

Within the current research sample, the failure of victims to gain satisfaction from the ‘fraud justice network’ (Button et al 2013) led many to seek alternative means of achieving the response they desired and felt they deserved. Several victims turned to current affairs programs (such as A Current Affair and Today Tonight) expecting that these television shows would fill the void left by the response from other more traditional agencies:

I was googling where I could report it. I think I might have even put it on like A Current Affair. You know on where you can like submit a story. I was just trying to do everything, any avenue. Whether it was media, government-related, I was putting it on there (Interview 51).

I’ve watched shows on TV. The classic was, I did write to A Current Affair or I picked one of them [current affairs programs] (Interview 66).

We’ve seen these programs haven’t we? ... And I thought, ‘I wonder if we did that we could get our money back?’ (Interview 50).

Some victims explicitly gave their dissatisfaction with police and other agencies as a reason for approaching these types of television shows:

I even put that in my letter to A Current Affair. I said, ‘It seemed the police don’t care enough.’ I mean I watch A Current Affair and I see these people and I’m like there is so many people out there like you say, who don’t report (Interview 2).

I take the rest of the day off. I run down to the [local suburb] Police Station and I said, ‘Look, I am being ripped off right now, can you please get this done, he is on the other side waiting to pick up.’ They wouldn’t even budge. ... And day and night I couldn’t sleep thinking what do I do next, what do I do next to nail them? At least you know A Current Affair said, ‘Okay you know we’ll do this, this and this’ (Interview 40).

Yeah but I even wrote a 2500 word statement of A Current Affair. ... If they can find them why can’t the feds [Australian Federal Police]? And the lady, the first police officer I spoke to she actually rang the fraud squad and they came back and said, ‘It’s not fraud.’ And I was like,

‘Well what is it then?’ ... I have been like ripped off, surely there has got to be someone who is going to help me (Interview 38).

Those who submitted their story to a current affairs program did so under the same expectation that they would receive a response as well as get action, through the initiation of an investigation. In other words, they transferred their expectations of reporting to law enforcement onto a television program, under an impression they would get a more effective response:

I do not want to be one of those people on there [A Current Affair], because I will never live it down, but they look like they would actually do something, they will kind of say like, ‘I’ll find out where these people are’ (Interview 38).

So I started telling everybody, putting it out there. Then I wrote in to A Current Affair. I thought if they can put up and harass people for this then surely they can investigate into something like this because there are heaps of people [victims]. I haven’t heard back (Interview 2).

But it was very tempting in one sense to go to say somewhere, something like A Current Affair or Today Tonight. They go overseas and find these guys (Interview 50).

These comments demonstrate that current affairs programs not only shape victims’ expectations of police, but are seen as another viable reporting option when the ‘fraud justice network’ has not delivered a satisfactory resolution. When victims’ expectations — often of a Head First-style international ‘sting’ — were not met by police, victims sought justice via current affairs programs, illustrating the influence of the ‘ACA effect’. As a result, it can be argued that current affairs programs are seen by some victims to be a quasi-law enforcement body, seemingly able to take action and investigate fraudulent incidents in a way that police and other agencies are unable or unwilling to.

However, despite the readiness of so many victims to share their story on national television in an attempt to get some sense of resolution or justice, no victim was able to achieve this. Rather, each victim reported the same frustration and dissatisfaction with current affairs programs that he or she had previously experienced with the ‘fraud justice network’. This was premised on identical reasons: lack of acknowledgment of their complaints and an inability (or perceived unwillingness) to take action and initiate an investigation:

Once again they [current affairs program] didn’t even deem — they probably get hundreds of thousands from everybody — but they should actually have a customer thing that says, ‘Thanks, but we’re not going be researching that’ (Interview 66).

When I told her [producer of a current affairs program] she said, ‘Well you know, we have heard about 200 of these things. Then we have to take them through legal. Then we have to take it though interest.’ I said, ‘Well what’s interest?’ She said, ‘Well some of these stories are boring.’ The ones you see on TV — I think she said they’ve published 17 out of a couple hundred that they’ve investigated (Interview 3).

There was a journalist that got in touch with me at one stage that was interested in my story and I have not heard back from her, so maybe she did not have the courage to go ahead with it. I am not sure (Interview 19).

I went everywhere. ... I even rang A Current Affair. I rang Today Tonight. And they were willing to take it but they said because it’s in the UK, we’d have to go there. It’s all finances at the end of the day ... And day and night I couldn’t sleep thinking what do I do next, what do I do next to nail them [the offender/s]? At least you know A Current Affair said, ‘Okay you know we’ll do this, this and this.’ And then as soon as they thought this case is not registered with a [police report] number, they dropped it (Interview 47).

A Current Affair, initially, were quite interested in doing a story, but then they got back to me and said, ‘I don’t think we can for legal reasons.’ I’m not sure what the legal reasons were (Interview 64).

The regularity with which victims in the current study reported their victimisation to current affairs programs highlights the disjuncture between expectations of policing (informed by the ACA effect) and actual responses of police to online fraud. The programs that victims had seen on television informed victims’ frames of reference around two things: their expectations of law enforcement agencies to take their complaint and initiate an investigation (or ‘sting’ operation); and the ability of current affairs programs to act in a de facto law enforcement role in the absence of an effective policing response.


It is clear that the reporting experience for victims of online fraud is often fraught with negativity and unmet expectations (Cross et al forthcoming). All victims of online fraud attempted to report their incident to police or other ‘fraud justice network’ (Button et al 2013) actors under the premises that they had been wronged, crimes had been committed and that responses were warranted (either for themselves or others). In most circumstances, this expectation was not met, leading victims to look elsewhere to obtain a response. For many, current affairs programs were seen to be a suitable avenue.

Media often portray the police response to online fraud as including highly organised international ‘stings’ and raids to apprehend suspected offenders. By suggesting on television that these emotive and highly charged events are commonplace, current affairs programs create an expectation of similar treatment among fraud victims. In reality, however, victims who report online fraud rarely receive a satisfactory response from either law enforcement agencies or current affairs programs. While international ‘sting’ operations undoubtedly make for good media stories, they are the exception, rather than the norm. In reality, the lack of action and inability (or unwillingness) of police to respond to individual reports of online fraud is far removed from and is not reported by current affairs programs. Consequently, current affairs programs inform the unrealistic expectations of police that are held by many victims of online fraud. Similarly, fraud victims’ expectations of television coverage of their situations on current affairs progress are overblown, with many victims suffering a double disappointment at the lack of response from both law enforcement and media agencies.

Overall, this study supports previous research that documents the impact media can have on individuals’ expectations about police responses to reports of crime (Callanan and Rosenberger 2011; Dowler and Zawilski 2007; Huey 2010; Maeder and Corbett 2015). It highlights the influence that the media can have on victims of online fraud in terms of framing their expectations of police and other agencies. While limited evidence has been found to support the existence of the CSI effect in the courtroom, this research supports the emerging body of literature that demonstrates the influence that crime television has on victims’ expectations of police.


This research was funded under Criminology Research Grant CRG29/13-14. The authors wish to acknowledge Dr Russell Smith, who collaborated on the research from which this article stems, Charlotte ten Have, who undertook research assistance in support of the article, and all those who agreed to be interviewed for the study. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Australian Institute of Criminology, the Criminology Research Advisory Council or the Commonwealth Government.


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[*] Lecturer, School of Justice, Queensland University of Technology, GPO Box 2434, Brisbane Qld 4001, Australia. Email:

[†] Senior Lecturer, School of Justice, Queensland University of Technology, GPO Box 2434, Brisbane Qld 4001, Australia. Email:

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