Fire Services Levy refund scam, warning to consumers

Victorians are being urged to be wary of a telephone scam where callers claim the property owner is owed a refund for Fire Services Levy overpayments.

Telephone scams have become prominent again in the past five years and, according to Australian Competition and Consumer Commission figures, in 2012 they accounted for 56% of all reported scams.

Consumer Affairs Victoria has been alerted to a scam where people are receiving phone calls from people claiming they’re from a government department or agency handling the Fire Services Levy.

The scammers tell the consumer they’re entitled to a $248 refund for overpayment to the Fire Services Levy and asked for personal details and bank account numbers to transfer the money.

Despite what the scammers claim, the Fire Services Levy Monitor does not make monetary transactions and never asks for personal details.

As of July 1 this year, the levy started being collected through local councils, while in the past it was the responsibility of insurance companies.

ACCC figures reveal so far in 2013, SCAMwatch has received 7400 complaints about reclaim scams such as this one.

Of the 7400 complaints, only 2% of people reported losing money, equating to 148 scam victims.

Unfortunately for these 148 people, more than $370,000 has already been lost this year to reclaim scams, meaning each person lost around $2500 on average.

ACCC deputy chair Michael Schaper told SmartCompany scammers take advantage of everything.

“It’s not uncommon to see charity related scams and for small business we’re seeing a number of fake government grant schemes. This particular scam is like a merger of the two,” he says.

“It touches on a natural disaster, but focuses on the refund. If you deal with government regularly, you realise they very rarely ask for bank account or personal details over the phone.”

But Schaper says for individuals who haven’t had much contact with government agencies, it’s easy to be tricked.

“Bank account details are an obvious one for scammers to ask about, but there is also a lot of currency in personal details,” he says.

Scammers seek access to a person’s bank account details and personal details to gain access to their money unlawfully, and there is also a growing illegal market for selling personal details to other scammers.

Schaper says warning bells should sound if a person starts asking for bank account details.

“The first warning sign is unsolicited approaches, especially to email or home. The first thing you want to ask is where they come from and how they have the contact details,” he says.

“The second is the pitch for money or information. They’ll often say you can validate them independently by going to a URL they provide, but you should do your own searches.”

Schaper suggests looking for their business in the phone book and searching for their business online, not just using the details supplied by the person on the phone or over email.

“If it is a scam, then just hang up,” he says.

In 2012, the total amount lost to scams was just over $93 million in total. However, this number is expected to be higher in reality given Australian Institute of Criminology research suggests less than 10% of scams are reported.

Schaper says telephone scams have gone in and out of fashion, with email the most prominent form for a number of years, but phone calls offer scammers more chances to dupe the consumer.

“The thing about a phone call is there is a chance to make a personal contact. While you might delete an email from an anonymous stranger, if they sound okay and like a nice person, you might be okay with giving them your details,” he says.

Earlier this year small businesses were hit by another Yellow Pages scam, where a fake business named “Yellow Page” sent a fax seeking confirmation of a business’s contact details. However in the fine print it was revealed it was signing up to an online directory service costing $99 a month for a minimum of two years.

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