ATO — the Australian Taxation Office — scams are among the most common and the most dangerous faced by everyday Australians. Tax is a complicated concept and scammers use this fact to try and confuse and threaten their victims into paying huge sums of money that they simply don’t owe.
Recently, the ATO released a fresh round of warnings about the actions of these online criminals, sharing the somewhat surprising fact that it is increasingly young people who are targeted by this type of crime. In February this year, the office published details outlining the fact that over six hundred Australians had been targeted by a phone scam, two hundred of them between the ages of 18 and 24. Two of these young victims had lost a combined $50,000.
With this in mind, how can young Australians protect themselves from the actions of tax time criminals? Well, they can start by understanding their tactics, as well as the way in which the ATO normally operates. For example, the ATO will never threaten individuals over the phone — if you receive such a call, it is an instant giveaway that you are not talking to a representative of the Australian government. Continue reading to discover everything you need to know to protect yourself from tax criminals and their online scams.
The role of the ATO
The Australian Taxation Office is responsible for shaping and managing Australia’s tax and superannuation systems. For individual Australians, the main contact they have with the ATO is completing and submitting their tax return online. All Australians are issued with an individual tax number, which is used for this purpose.
The ATO is a professional organisation. This means that they will never threaten individuals, ask for payment via gift cards, or request personal details via email.
How to spot a tax scammer
ATO scammers operate in a variety of ways, most commonly via phone or email. A phone scam typically involves the scammer contacting the victim and informing them that there is some kind of issue with their tax return. This might be that they have failed to complete it correctly, that fraudulent activity has been identified, or that a large sum of money is owed to the ATO.
Typically, the scammer will behave in a very threatening and abusive manner. They may claim that they have issued a warrant for the victim’s arrest and threaten them with jail time. Doing so is designed to cause as much stress as possible for the victim, spurring them into action that usually involves paying a large sum of money to the scammer.
There are several ways that you can identify an ATO scam, whether it be via phone, text message, or email:
- Spelling and grammar mistakes: Often, these scammers are based overseas and English is not their first language. Pre-recorded or written messages may be full of spelling and grammar mistakes, which you would definitely not expect of an Australian Government organisation.
- Asking for personal information: If you have ever completed a tax return before, the ATO will have all of your personal information stored securely on their databases. There is no need for them to ask for your full name, date of birth, or tax file number — particularly via email. This is a classic sign of a phishing scam.
- Threatening and abusive behaviour: As mentioned, the ATO is a professional, government organisation. While it’s true that they do issue fines for citizens who have not completed their tax return correctly, they will not threaten you with jail time over the phone.
Tips for protecting yourself online
Other than understanding the tactics of cybercriminals, there are a range of strategies that you can employ to protect yourself from tax-related online scams:
- Use two-factor authentication: Tax scammers have a range of goals. Often, they are simply attempting to convince you to transfer money into their bank account. Other times they may be trying to gather enough information — like your email address and potentially, passwords — to break into your other online accounts. By setting up two-factor authentication, you will be immediately alerted if someone tries to access your email or social media accounts from an unknown device.
- Share sparingly: Social media is a great tool for keeping up with family and friends. However, in doing so, we can unknowingly share vast amounts of personal information with online criminals — information that can be used against us. Never share information like your tax file number of myGov login details via social media.
- Install security software: The tactics of online criminals are constantly evolving. Fortunately, today’s security software is well up to the task. By installing dark web monitoring and antivirus software on all of your devices — computers, laptops, phones, and tablets — you will be protected against viruses, malware, phishing, and hacking attempts that often accompany tax-related scams.
The ATO themselves advise that you should always be wary of any communication you receive from someone claiming to be an official tax office representative. If in doubt, hang up and call the ATO directly using the number advertised on their website. Should you be contacted by a scammer impersonating the ATO, you should immediately report the scam — doing so is the best way to protect not only yourself but your fellow Australians.