ATO sounds alarm on “unprecedented” number of scam phone calls this year, with Aussies losing more than $1 million

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The Australian Taxation Office (ATO) has sounded an urgent alarm over an influx of scam calls to taxpayers claiming to be from the taxman, with overseas criminals collecting more than $1 million in an “unprecedented” operation.

The tax office warned the ‘robocalls’ were stemming from overseas scamming groups, coming through as pre-recorded messages which demand immediate payment of tax debt, threatening arrest if it’s not paid. In a further complication, the calls are now being manipulated to appear to come from a legitimate ATO number.

“Scammers are sending pre-recorded messages in record numbers and are manipulating caller identification so that your phone displays a legitimate ATO phone number despite coming from an overseas scammer,” assistant commissioner Gavin Siebert said in a statement.

“We are now seeing thousands of Australians missing a call from a scammer, returning the call based on the number on caller ID and speaking to legitimate members of the ATO. Our calls do not show a number on caller ID nor do we use pre-recorded messages.”

A key sign of these scams is the criminals asking for payment via unorthodox methods, such as Bitcoin, iTunes gift cards, or other vouchers, with the scammers reportedly getting rude and aggressive until the payment is made.

Just three months into the year, the ATO says it has already received more than 40,000 reports of such scams, with a whopping $1 million being lost.

It’s far from the first time the ATO has been targeted by scammers, with the tax office being impersonated through a similar type of scam earlier this year, though in this case, the scammers sent taxpayers SMS messages notifying them of their supposed tax debt.

Additionally, a sophisticated scam stung one taxpayer for over $9,000 last year, when criminals pretended to be the man’s accountant and told him there was an error in his tax return.

Fake tax debt and other payment demand scams have been around for some time, however, their prevalence has increased sharply in the past 12 months. In 2017, Scamwatch reported just 8,300 instances of these scams, but that number jumped to nearly 20,000 in 2018, with 6,600 of those reports occurring in November alone.

Cyber security experts speculate the rise in these sorts of operations is likely due to them being largely untraceable and also being quite lucrative for criminals.

“Taxpayers should be wary of any unexpected phone call, text message or email claiming to be from the tax office. While we may contact you in these ways, if it doesn’t seem right, independently find our phone number and check if the contact was legitimate,” Siebert said.

“If you receive a pre-recorded message claiming to be from us either hang up or simply delete the voicemail.”

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