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ATO scams: Expert pinpoints exact signs to look out for

How do you know if an email or text message is legitimate? Here are the signs.

A composite image of the Australian Taxation Office logo and two examples of ATO scams.
The ATO is regularly impersonated by scammers. (Source: Getty / ATO)

Scammers are getting more advanced and, with tax time around the corner, they have turned to impersonating the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) with almost-scary accuracy.

But there are still telltale signs that something is a scam, and knowing what to look out for could save you thousands of dollars.

KnowBe4 security-awareness advocate Jacqueline Jayne shared her tips and tricks for spotting a scam before falling for one.

“Each year, we see the same scams and millions of dollars stolen from hard-working Australians,” Jayne said.

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“Tax time is one of the busiest periods for scammers, who will often impersonate government agencies to seek financial benefit, or to gather personally identifiable information, including tax file numbers.”

General rules for all communication from the ATO

  1. If you receive an email, SMS, or phone call that says it is from the ATO, STOP and take a breath

  2. If it includes a link, IT IS A SCAM. Report it and DO NOT ENGAGE

  3. If it includes an attachment (usually in an email), IT IS A SCAM. Report it and DO NOT ENGAGE

Remember:

  1. The real ATO will never send you any links to click on

  2. If the real ATO does contact you, they will only ever ask you to contact them directly via their official sites, such as https://www.ato.gov.au or https://my.gov.au/, to log into your account

  3. Call the ATO on 1800 008 540 if you are unsure or want to clarify something

Top scams to be aware of and how to avoid them

Social media impersonation accounts

This scam is popular on almost every social media platform, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok. These are pages that impersonate the ATO and its employees.

“The intent is to get you to interact with the pages, send messages, and ask questions with the end goal of tricking you into sharing personal information such as email addresses, phone numbers and bank account details,” Jayne said.

“The ATO does have an official presence on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, all of which hold the blue tick of authentication.”

Red flags

In the below examples, it is clear there are no blue ticks for authentication, and the follower counts are very low.

The real ATO will never request such information on social media.

A composite image of two ATO scam social media profiles.
Social media profiles are set up by scammers pretending to be legitimate business or organisations. (Source: ATO)

Tax Refund SMS Scams

This scam increased in popularity in 2022 and is a continuing concern for 2023.

“This is a scam designed to get you to click on the link. You are then taken to a fake website (that looks real) with a form for you to complete so you can get your money,” Jayne said.

“Once again, scammers are looking for your personal information.”

Red flags

The real ATO will never send an SMS with a link in it.

A copy of an ATO text message scam.
Text message scams are the most frequently reported. (Source: ATO)

Tax Lodgement email scam

This email scam shares fake information about your tax return lodgment date with a fake receipt number.

“The message is very manipulative as it tells you not to call them. Instead, the email suggests that it is better for you to check the attachment and ensure that all your information is correct,” Jayne said.

“If you do happen to click on the attachment, you will be taken to another screen that looks like an official Microsoft Sign-in (IT IS FAKE). The intent of this scam is to collect your login details and password.

“Access to your Microsoft account has the potential for cybercriminals to access your personal device, providing access to everything you have. Plus, if you happen to reuse your passwords, there is a high chance that cybercriminals will use these details to attempt to access other applications.”

Red flags

The real ATO will never send you an email with a link in it or an attachment to open.

A composite image of two ATO tax lodgement scams.
The ATO will never send you an email with an attachment. (Source: ATO)

Fake TFN/ABN applications

These scams are advertised to unsuspecting people via social platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, stating that you can get some help obtaining a Tax File Number (TFN) or Australian Business Number (ABN) for a fee.

“If you engage with the advertisements, you are taken to fraudulent websites where you will be requested to confirm or enter personal information that can be used for nefarious activities,” Jayne said.

Red flags

Applying for a TFN or ABN is free.

The real ATO will never advertise on social media.

Tax evasion suspected; pay with cryptocurrency

Scammers are opportunistic, so it makes sense that there would be a scam involving tax and cryptocurrency.

“Here we see smishing (malicious SMS) pretending to be from the ATO with a message stating that you are a suspect in cryptocurrency tax evasion and then you are directed to click on a link to access your wallet to sort it out. Please do not click on the link,” Jayne said.

Red flags

The real ATO will never send an SMS with a link in it.

A copy of an ATO cryptocurrency scam.
Scammers will do anything to try to steal your details. (Source: ATO)

Fake tax debt

Scammers will pretend to be from the ATO and will contact you via phone or text and allege you have a tax debt, and if you don’t pay right away you will be arrested.

“The scammers will demand payment via prepaid gift cards or credit cards, or even cryptocurrency and will be very persistent for you to pay them,” Jayne said.

“If you receive this call, hang up.”

Red flags

The real ATO will never call you with a demand for payment, threaten arrest or use prerecorded messages such as this.

Asking you to update your myGov Details

This scam has done the rounds in previous years and this year is no different. This is when a scammer impersonates myGov to tell people they need to update their details.

“Scammers pretend to be from the ‘myGov customer care team’ and send emails telling people they must verify their identity by clicking a link,” Jayne said.

“If you open the link, you will be taken to a fake myGov website where you are asked to sign in with your myGov details.”

Red flags

The real ATO and MyGov will never send an email or an SMS with a link in it.

Sending alerts claiming you have a suspended TFN

For the past few years at tax time, the ATO has received reports of calls where you hear an automated voice message claiming your TFN has been suspended and that there is a legal case against your name.

“This is a scam. You will be put through to a scammer who will tell you that your TFN has been suspended due to money laundering or fraudulent activity,” Jayne said.

“Then, just to leverage the fear factor, you are asked to provide the last four digits of your TFN, address, date of birth, name of your bank account and the approximate amount of money in the account(s).

“The scammer may transfer you to the fake police. They will tell you that a case has indeed been filed against you and you will be arrested if you don’t pay. If you receive this call, hang up.”

Red flags

The ATO will never send unsolicited pre-recorded messages to your phone or threaten you with immediate arrest.

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