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ATO fake calls: The scam that keeps on giving

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As if the Australian Tax Offive  – plagued by the Plutus payroll and Michael and Adam Cranston saga – didn’t have enough bad press at the moment. But the Australian Consumer Complaints Commission (ACCC) Deputy Chair Deidre Rickard estimates around $2 million has been shelled out so far this year by unwitting victims to scammers claiming to be from the ATO.

“That’s around 40,000 people,” she said. “It’s really huge – and that is only the people who are reporting the calls. Most people are too embarrassed to complain or do anything about it when they are conned.

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“It’s outrageous … these people are operating from overseas call centres they have a script, they are threatening. They are big organised crime and they make a fortune,” she said.

The ATO scam – where some one calls claiming to be from the ATO and that you owe them money – usually has a huge spike in calls from scammers at the end of the tax year. The Scamwatch website records there was a fourfold increase in the money lost in the ATO scam, known as upfront and advanced fee fraud, at the end of this financial year. The 2017 figures for June, show consumers lost nearly $1.4 million ($1,399,334) in fraud scams, which is almost four times the 2017 monthly average the scammers are bagging in cash. Last month (August) innocent tax payers were conned into giving $283,213 over to fraudsters – which has been around the usual 2017 monthly average.

As if the ATO cold do with more bad news. ATO deputy commissioner Michael Cranston, pictured outside court last month, ... As if the ATO cold do with more bad news. ATO deputy commissioner Michael Cranston, pictured outside court last month, allegedly attempted to access information for his son. Photo: AAP

Ms Rickard said there are usually two types of calls. The first is where a person calls threatening a warrant is out for your arrest and that you must pay a large sum of money, usually in iTunes​ gift cards. The second is when they keep you on the telephone while they walk to the supermarket to buy the iTunes cards.

“Usually they are older people who are conned or people who have turned off the rational side of thier brain and are just scared,” she said.

She said scammers have got smarter this year, and are avoiding scams involving banks. The ACCC has been working with supermarkets like Coles and Woolworths, whose staff are discouraging customers they feel are being conned into buying a large volume of iTunes cards.

If, like me, you receive a call from some one purporting to represent the tax office, be wary. Earlier this week I received a call on my mobile from a man purporting to be Gary Smith from the Australian Taxation Office. He said they had received a legal complaint about me for tax fraud.

“Before we take the matter into the Local District court and before we issue a warrant in your name kindly call us back.

“Do not disregard this message and do return the call as soon as possible,” he threatened.

Fortunately, as a former court reporter, I knew there was no Local District Court (there is a Local Court and a District Court but no such thing as the Local District Court).

So I called Gary Smith, on the number he gave me for the ATO.

“Australian Taxation Office, how may I help you,” the man answered the phone, in a heavy accent. I asked for Gary Smith and I told him my name. He asked if I was working as a freelance journalist. At this point I told him he was being recorded and he told me he “didn’t care”.

He repeated there was an outstanding amount in my name owing to the ATO. When I told him I was a journalist with The Sydney Morning Herald, and that I’d heard someone with a very similar accent be shamed on ABC radio that morning he said “oh no.”

Realising he’d been sprung he went on to tell me: “I am from the Russian mafia which deals in arms. Do you want grenades? I deal in bombs – fire in the hole.”

And then he hung up. And probably went on to another scam call.

How to spot a fake call from the Australian Taxation Office:

The ATO makes thousands of outbound calls to taxpayers each week, but there are key differences between a call from a scammer and a legitimate call from the ATO.

The ATO will not:

  *   be abusive or offensive to you
  *   threaten you with immediate arrest
  *   ask you to transfer money into an account with a BSB that is not 092009 or 093003
  *   request payment via unusual methods such as iTunes gift cards or other prepaid cards
  *   request personal security information such as your TFN or your bank details via email or SMS or social media sites
  *   ask you for money up front in order to receive a refund or other payment
  *   direct you to download files from the internet.

The ATO will:

 *   provide you with a range of options for paying debts, which are all set out on our website at ato.gov.au/howtopay
 *   contact you by phone
 *   if you are in doubt about the authenticity of a call claiming to be from the ATO, you can call us on 1800 008 540 to verify
 *   you will generally be aware of any debt before it is due for payment, but you can check through your myGov account, your tax agent or by calling the ATO
 *   send emails and SMS asking to you to take specific action such as: provide additional information required to process a BAS or tax return lodge 

 *   provide additional information required regarding an application that’s been made
 *   verify changes to an account
 *   send general notifications and reminders via SMS or email
 *   send promotional and informational SMS and emails.

Source: ATO

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