The Australian Taxation Office has sounded the alarm on a crafty phone scam catching out taxpayers across the country, with experts warning such scams are increasingly effective due to the tax office’s new data-matching capabilities.
In a warning on its website, the ATO said impersonation scams are on the rise and cited an example of a taxpayer who was duped out of $9,000 in digital currency Bitcoin after scammers convinced him to pay up via a three-way phone conversation.
The taxpayer, referred to by the ATO as ‘Darren’, received a voicemail from the scammer alerting him to an outstanding debt in need of immediate payment. The voicemail said the caller was from the ATO and they threatened five years’ jail time if the debt was not paid.
Darren was asked for the number of his tax agent, who the scammer said they would then “dial in” to the call to confirm the details of the outstanding debt.
On providing the number, a third person who was also a scammer joined the call, claiming he was from the same tax agency as Darren’s tax agent but Darren’s agent was in a meeting and unavailable. The fake tax agent told Darren there was an error in his tax return and he owed the ATO $9,000.
The fake tax agent then told Darren to withdraw $9,000 and deposit it into a Bitcoin ATM.
In the warning, the ATO told taxpayers and business owners to remain vigilant for such scams. According to the tax office, these scam calls regularly contain serious threats of jail time or arrest if the debts are not paid quickly, and the scammers can get “aggressive or abusive”.
The tax office also warned that scammers will always request payment through unusual payment methods, such as iTunes cards or prepaid Visa cards. Sometimes scammers will request credit card numbers to provide a “refund”, which will instead result in them stealing additional funds, said the ATO.
Speaking to SmartCompany, principal tax adviser at Perigee Advisers Lisa Greig says while she hasn’t been exposed to these sorts of scams, she’s heard of them affecting other tax professionals and their clients. She believes their success breeds off business owners’ fear of the ATO.
“The reason people use tax agents most of the time is because they’re afraid of the ATO, so if someone from the tax office rings, most people start thinking they’re going to take their firstborn,” she says.
“Taxpayers understand the powers the ATO has, so there’s a knee-jerk reaction that they’re checking up because something needs to be fixed.”
While the tax office hasn’t specified how many businesses have fallen for these scams, Greig thinks it’s something businesses are more likely to succumb to over everyday taxpaying individuals, despite many business owners having a close relationship with their tax agent.
“Though many small business owners have an excellent relationship with their tax agent, there’s a lot who would only see theirs once a quarter for their BAS [Business Activity Statement]. Those businesses are the most susceptible,” she says.
“There’s a lot of things that can go wrong with tax, and the first reaction for a lot of business owners who aren’t very involved is to bring out their wallet when someone says they’re doing something wrong.”
Greig also thinks the ATO’s increased focus on its data-matching technology will see scams such as this one, along with more typical email phishing scams, be more successful.
This is because businesses who don’t have exceptional record keeping are going to question scams like these less, says Greig, as they will begin to assume the ATO knows better than they do.
The ATO advises any business owners who think they are being called by a scammer to hang up and call the ATO’s official phone line. It’s also essential to “know the status of your tax affairs”, says the tax office.
“If you are aware of the details of debts owed, refunds due and lodgments outstanding, you are less likely to fall victim to a scam. You can regularly check your details via myGov or by contacting your registered tax agent,” the ATO warns.
“If you receive a call like the example above, you can hang up and call your tax agent independently.”