For many Aussies, tax time means a tax refund, or a modest cash injection in the bank account – and it’s a fact that scammers know and take advantage of every tax season.
With scam activity escalating throughout 2020 and 2021, cyber security agencies and security experts have been issuing warnings in a bid to plead Australians to stay vigilant this tax time.
“Scammers will use any event or entity as an opportunity to undertake fraudulent behaviour,” wrote Edith Cowan University academics in a recent piece for The Conversation.
“All of us — especially those scrambling at the last minute to get their receipts in order — should keep an eye out for the accompanying onslaught of tax scams.
“They’ll be everywhere this end of financial year.”
So, buckle in and familiarise yourself with the following common tax time scams – and then share it with your friends and family, so they can protect themselves, too.
Here are the different kinds of scams you should be wary of in the new financial year:
Any scammer pretending to be the ATO
You may receive any kind of scam in the form of a text, a pre-recorded phone call (or robocall), or an email.
But scammers love to take advantage of important, authoritative institutions, and who better than the taxman himself?
Queensland Police recently issued a warning against scams involving the ATO in the following forms:
SMS requests to update your myGov details;
Asking you to click on a link to receive a refund;
Pre-recorded messages claiming you have an unpaid tax debt;
Threats of arrest if you don’t make immediate payment.
“Telltale signs of a scam can include demands for immediate payment or personal information, aggressive behaviour and the use of threats such as arrest,” the police department said in an online alert.
“Know that police and the ATO will never call and threaten you with arrest or deportation.”
The Australian Cyber Security Centre is also reminding Australians that any communications that appear to be from the “ATO” telling you to click a link are fraudulent, every time.
‘Tax file number compromised’ scam
Another scam spoofing the ATO you should know about is the ‘tax file number suspended’ scam.
The ATO has received around 700 reports of this scam already, and Yahoo Finance reported about it last tax time.
The ATO is warning against it again this year, after a retired nurse was scammed out of $15,000 in March.
“We're seeing that instead of scammers asking for a specific amount of money, they're requesting victims transfer every last dollar in their bank account,” said ATO assistant commissioner Trent Jakubowski.
“What's most malicious is that in some cases, these scammers are stealing money under the guise of saving it from other fraudsters trying to access their account.”
There are two ways this scam call might appear:
‘Your TFN has been suspended, as scammers have your details. In the meantime, you have to transfer your money out of your account to protect it while it gets sorted out’; or
‘Your TFN has been used illegally, and you’ll have to move your money out of your bank account while we wait for the outcome of legal action’.
While many people think it’s only older Australians who fall for these scams, younger Australians (18-24 year olds) actually tend to be more susceptible to this type of scam, according to Jakubowski.
In May, the (real) ATO warned Australians about phishing emails that look like they’re from myGov.
“Scammers pretending to be from the myGov customer care team are sending emails telling people they need to verify their identity by clicking on a link,” the ATO said.
Don’t click any links, and don’t give any of your personal information, the taxman warned.
“The link goes to a fake myGov log-on page designed to steal your personal information, including your passport and driver’s licence details.”
‘Tax debt’ scam
In September last year, the ATO flagged a fake tax debt scam call that people were receiving – and it looks like the scam is doing the rounds again this tax time.
“Scammers pretending to be from the ATO are contacting members of the community, telling them that they have a tax debt and that if they don't pay it straight away they will be arrested,” the ATO said.
But if you get this scam call, there’s one dead giveaway: they might ask for payment in a weird way.
“These scammers will often request payment through unusual methods, such as cryptocurrency, pre-paid credit cards or gift cards, and will try to keep people on the line until they have paid.”
Don’t send any information or money – hang up immediately, the ATO said.
“We will never threaten you with immediate arrest or demand payment through unusual means.”
'Tax refund' scam
On the flip side, email security platform MailGuard has intercepted email scams promising Australians a $220 tax return if they just "click here".
But it isn't real – it's just a phishing page.
“This is a particularly sinister scam as cybercriminals are attempting to exploit vulnerable Australians, many of whom are suffering economic hardship as a result of the economic uncertainty caused by COVID-19,” MailGuard wrote.
“By falsely claiming that users are eligible for a tax refund, the cybercriminals behind the attack are cruelly capitalising on those unfortunate circumstances.”
Real ways to contact the ATO
The ATO won’t send you texts or emails asking you to click a link – nor will they ever demand direct money transfers, suspend your tax file number, or threaten you with jail or deportation.
Instead, the most trustworthy way to contact the ATO is through this number: 1800 008 540 or their legitimate website, ato.gov.au.
You can only log onto the ATO’s platform by first going through myGov, which is available at my.gov.au.
Any other method, no matter how convincing or legitimate it may look, is likely fraudulent.
Scammers have grown so sophisticated that they have managed to make ‘ATO’ appear on caller ID to seem like the real thing.
But if this happens and you doubt the legitimacy, just hang up and call them again on the above number.
What can you do if you’re scammed?
The issue with these online, anonymous scams is that it can be difficult to recover your money at best – and impossible, at worst.
“If you’ve already lost money to scammers, unfortunately there are limited options because most scams send stolen money to offshore accounts, making recovery almost impossible,” the Edith Cowan University academics said.
“If you’ve bought gift cards you can talk with the retailer, but most are non-refundable.”
If you have made payments, contact your bank as soon as you can. “Speed is crucial here,” the academics added.
And if you suspect scammers are asking you for further payments, obviously stop sending funds over.
Scams spoofing the ATO should be reported directly to the tax office:
forward the entire email to ReportEmailFraud@ato.gov.au
take a screenshot of the text and email it to ReportEmailFraud@ato.gov.au.
You can also report the scam through the ATO website.
The competition watchdog, the ACCC, has published a ‘little black book of scams’, which outlines everything from the most common scams to watch out for, different ways scammers contact you, different tricks they use, how to protect yourself and where to find help.
You can find it here – it’s available in other languages, too.
The Cyber Security Centre also has a list of the most common online scams to keep an eye out for.
Have a tax-related scam you've spotted, or a question for us about Tax Time 2021? Let us know at email@example.com.