Don’t fall for this tax time phone scam
IF YOU get this phone call, hang up immediately.
It's tax time, and the Australian Taxation Office is warning people to be on the lookout for increasingly sophisticated scammers, many of whom are now imitating genuine ATO phone numbers to fool caller IDs.
Consumer Affairs Victoria has released an audio recording of one phone scam to warn potential victims. "As per our recent audit, we have identified incorrect sorted tax filings, and we regret to inform you that your account has been marked delinquent on account of tax avoidance," the robotic voice reads.
"As our letters sent to your registered address have also returned unsigned, and undelivered resulting into [sic] a petition note to be filed against your name, including a warrant for your arrest.
"Now before the case is sent for execution, and you receive the legal course of notification, to reach our concerned officer call on 03 83 ... 630. The number again, 03 83 ... 630. Resolve your matter immediately."
According to the ATO, 48,084 scams were reported between July and October last year. Already this year, the tax office has received more than 17,000 scam reports. Of these, 113 Australians handed over $1.5 million to scammers, while 2500 provided some sort of personal information such as tax file numbers.
"One victim lost $900,000 to scammers over the course of several months, even borrowing money from family and friends," ATO Assistant Commissioner Kath Anderson said last month.
"The large number of people lodging their tax returns means scammers are particularly active, so it's important to keep an eye out for anything that looks suspicious and protect your private information."
Mark Chapman, director of tax communications at H&R Block, said phone scams had become increasingly popular. "People fall for them simply because the approach the scammers take is so aggressive," he said.
"The caller effectively says the client has an outstanding debt and needs to pay it immediately on pain of imprisonment. People feel bullied into paying. Typically people who are called don't have any kind of tax debt at all, and of course the ATO themselves never adopt that approach."
Mr Chapman said phone scams appeared to target victims randomly through cold-calling. "I've called a few of these numbers back in my time, they appear to be quite sophisticated operations with a substantial number of people involved," he said.
"The number comes through from what appears to be an Australian landline, but in reality it's from a call centre outside Australia. It appears they're possibly somewhere in India, although no doubt there's more than one outfit doing this."
He said email scams are also proving popular. "Once upon a time people would send an email saying you were due a refund from the ATO, asking you to get in touch with credit card details and they would pay," Mr Chapman said.
"That has kind of died off a bit. What people tend to do these days is send you viruses. You'll get an email purporting to be from the ATO, it might say you have a notice of assessment or are due a tax refund, and there will be an attachment at the bottom. If you click it, you end up downloading one of these malware viruses which can then hold your computer to ransom."
In either case, the solution is the same. "If it's an email, delete it. If it's a phone call, put the phone down," said Mr Chapman. "If you're uncertain as to whether it's a genuine call or not, you can actually call the main ATO switchboard."
Ashley Debenham, marketing communications manager at Etax, said scammers were getting "smarter and smarter each year". "Scammers can get your email from anywhere, any other third-party site you put your email in," he said.
"You'll either get a 'too good to be true' message, or a threatening, scary one. The phone call scams are in a similar sort of vein. In Australia, 74 per cent of people use a tax agent, so the ATO should be contacting the tax agent rather than the client directly."
While there's not much you can do if you do end up paying money, if you hand over any personal information you should immediately request a new tax file number. "Scammers who attempt to collect personal information like tax file numbers are likely trying to do identity theft," Mr Debenham said.
"So the sooner the ATO can cancel your tax file number the better it is in the long run. If it's been compromised, it's better to be safe than sorry."