Life & Arts

ATO and money scams rob Australians of millions

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The author was almost a victim of an ATO phone scam (image by David Whelan via Wikimedia Commons).

Like many of us, I am an informed and law-abiding citizen.

I read the news regularly. I have seen public service announcements on TV about scams. I would even tell myself: “This could never happen to me. They would not get me.”  

Until it happened.

At 3:10 pm, on a Friday afternoon, my mobile phone rang and stopped after a single ring. I saw a local number. Within seconds, I received a voice mail message.

This is what it was:

Confused, I called the number in the message, unintentionally falling for what I now know is the Wangiri fraud method.


A stern sounding female voice introduced herself as an authorised officer of the Australian Taxation Office (ATO). She said there were several errors in my last tax return, which the tax office had identified months ago and reached out to me for an explanation. I failed to answer and now an arrest warrant had been issued in my name with immediate effect.

As one who lives in Melbourne, without any support system, this was enough to send my brain into overdrive: just what the scammers wanted.

I told her that I was never contacted by the ATO and she passed the call onto another person who introduced himself as a senior investigating officer. He then progressed to loop me into a three-way call with someone pretending to be my accountant.

They quickly agreed that the errors had been due to my accountant’s fault and since the return was in my name, I shall be liable for damages amounting to nearly $8,000. I needed to resolve this issue today by withdrawing $1,000 in cash from a nearby ATM and sending it at an address they nominate or face arrest by evening.

This took place in a matter of a few minutes. I was not allowed to hang-up, even for a second because the modus operandi of scams is based on the immediacy of threat which leads to what psychologists call an "amygdala hijack". It shuts down our pre-frontal cortex, the rational part of our brain, causing us to merely act and not think.

ATO scams have been on the rise

I consider myself lucky because eventually I saw through their plan and hung up. Not everyone is able to do so.

Last year, in a similar scam a school principal lost $1,500, which she paid in Google Play cards to the scammers. In fact, ATO scams have been on a steady rise, phone calls and messages being the most preferred method of delivery.

And they cost us dearly.

In 2018-19, Australians lost nearly half-a-billion dollars to scams. In 2019 alone, scams involving threats to life, arrest or other immediate threats cost us nearly $5 million. Whilst I was asked for my full name, date of birth and pin code, there are times when scammers succeed in getting more sensitive information like a bank account or tax file number, leading to more serious identity frauds.

Last year, nearly $16 million were lost to scams where access to personal information of people was gained.

Besides the financial cost, these scams often take a toll on a person’s mental and emotional wellbeing. I was left shell-shocked for several hours. For those who end up losing money, it could be more stressful in having to report the incident and live the experience again. This can lead to feelings of shame, nausea which can trigger depression and in rare cases, PTSD.

Professor David Lacey, Managing Director at IDCARE, a not-for-profit support service for those affected by cyber-crime and identify fraud, suggests that survivors often lose trust in themselves and the community at large. His research in scams, published by the University of Texas, shows how Australian men between 25 and 45 years, were increasingly being targeted by scammers and reporting distress from losing their personal information.

What do the authorities say?

The ATO has identified such phone scams based on what they call the robocall technology. Last year, when more than 300 people lost nearly $1 million through them, they issued an official warning through the media.

The Australian Communication and Media Authority (ACMA) have also been trying to stop these scams, although keeping up with the latest technology used by scammers has been an ongoing challenge because many of them originate overseas. The ACCC’s Scamwatch website helps in creating awareness by regularly updating information about the cost and nature of such scams on a monthly basis.

What can we do?

The ATO has identified some tell-tale signs of such frauds, including the fact that real tax officers never threaten people with immediate arrests and outright aggression. They never ask to settle tax debts over the phone or through card-less cash, cryptocurrency, iTunes or Google Play cards.

It is important to never disclose personal information and always ask questions, no matter how confident the other person seems.

They say prevention is better than trying to find a cure and it’s definitely true in this case. Not being complacent in our protection from these scams is the only way to protect ourselves and those we care about from the harm they cause.

Prashant Bhatia is a Melbourne-based media professional. He has previously written on the religious discrimination bill, the need to protect local journalism and youth mental health.


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