Overseas criminals are scaring people into believing they face a $125,000 fine or five years in jail in a cruel scam that has cost Australians $63.6 million so far this year.
The wicked hoax works through phone calls or text messages and relies on frightening people into making a ‘settlement’ of thousands of dollars to avoid a huge fine or jail.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) said that of the 213,000 reports logged by its Scamwatch site this year, more than half have been phone-related.
The scams, known as phishing schemes, trick people into giving out personal information.
‘It’s very concerning to see these scams evolving and becoming more sophisticated to steal even more money from unsuspecting people,’ ACCC Deputy Chair Delia Rickard said.
Daily Mail Australia got an inside look at how one of those scams work when called by a scammer – he wasn’t a whistleblower revealing the crime, he was trying to scam me.
Phone scams often use an Australian number which diverts to a call centre in another country. The call centre pictured is a stock image, not the call centre referred to in this story
The call came from a number in the NSW city of Newcastle, and was a recorded message telling me I was under criminal investigation by the Australian Taxation Office for tax evasion.
After the recording, it said to press 9 to talk to an operator.
I hung up, got my digital recorder and called the Newcastle number back. Given what followed, I am almost certain it transferred from NSW to a busy call centre somewhere in India.
‘You have reached the tax crime investigation department of Australia. You’re speaking with officer Michael,’ the man who answered said.
He later told me his surname was Jones. But given his strong Indian accent, I had my doubts that Michael Jones was his real name.
He gave me a supposed case number, then asked my name. Given he had given me a fake name, I figured it was fair to give him a fake name in return.
I gave a fairly generic identity as I didn’t want to give him any idea I was on to his criminal scheme.
Australians have lost $63.6 million to phone scams already this year
His acceptance of my made up name showed he did not know who they’d called, I was just the next Australian number on their list.
Next up, he asked me to ‘confirm’ my tax file number, as if he had it in front of me and was just following protocol.
I can’t even remember my actual tax file number, never mind make up a fake one on the spot, given I can’t remember how many digits it has.
I apologised to him and said I didn’t have it on me. He accepted this and asked me to ‘confirm’ my residential address?’
I made up a street name and added a real suburb, but I feared the jig might have been up.
Maybe he had a something on his computer that would flash a warning at the fake address.
He did not, but asked me for my postcode. I gave one I know does not match the suburb.
‘I got your file in front of me,’ Michael said and moved to tough guy criminal investigator mode, saying I was ‘the primary suspect in a case being filed by ATO’.
‘I have received a legal affidavit against your name. It says there is an outstanding lodge against your name and you also tried to commit a fraud with the taxation office. So I just need to have a lawyer name and number who will be able to represent you inside the commonwealth courthouse.’
If I didn’t know this was a scam, I would have been very scared by now. It was hard to resist telling him where he could shove his affidavit.
Online and phone scams are on the increase in Australia and around the world
He told me to get a pen and paper so he could give me all the details of my case. I made a few noises which I hoped would sound like I was fetching the writing material.
My supposed case number was 54156, batch ID ATM 8175. Warrant ID 192-64. He asked me to read back the details I hadn’t written down. I assured him I had done so and there was no need to read it all back.
People aged 65 years and older have lost the most money so far in 2021, losing $49.1 million, or 23 per cent of total losses for the year.
Indigenous Australians have reported $4.3 million in losses to scams, an increase of 172 per cent on the losses reported in the same period in 2020.
People who speak English as a second language made over 10,500 reports with losses of $29.9 million, representing almost 14.4 per cent of total losses for the period.
People who suspect they may be a victim of identity theft should contact IDCARE on 1800 595 160 or via www.idcare.org
The tough guy persona was back on. ‘The line on which we are talking right now is recorded and monitored by ATO headquarters, the local authorities and the commonwealth courthouse,’ he said, before asking me not to interrupt while he read out the charges against me. If I hang up the police would arrest me within ’45 minutes to one hour’.
‘$3,235 has been underpaid by you. When they did an audit they found out that you’d failed to declare your taxable income was higher than what was declared in the return and you have wrongly benefitted from deductions for which you are not eligible, and every year you paid less taxes than you were supposed to,’ he told me.
He offered me a sliver of hope, saying the ATO was not certain I was at fault, that maybe it was my accountant. Then he yanked that sliver away. Either way, he said, ‘the person that will suffer for this’ would be me.
ATO was pressing four charges against me. ‘Count one, violation of commonwealth tax regulation, count two, violation of Australian taxation code, count three, theft by deception, count four, willful misrepresentation of information against a commonwealth organisation.’
The ATO would ‘forcefully recover’ my unpaid taxes and could take my house and car, freeze my bank accounts, downgrade my credit rating, tell my employer and seize my passport and driver’s license.
In case I wasn’t already scared enough he said if I fought the charges I would face a fine of $125,000 or five years in jail. I pretended to be shocked at that and said I couldn’t afford that amount of money.
This was probably the response he had been trained to expect, and he switched back from the massive fine and jail term to remind me I could make all this go away by just paying the $3,235 I had underpaid in taxes.
‘You have two options, sir. What do you want to do right now? Are you going to fight this case or are you going to solve this case? If you want to solve this case, simply just pay the amount (of) $3,235. If you just pay the outstanding amount you will not face legal consequences regarding this case and the ATO will cancel your warrant and all charges against your name.’
He heaped on the pressure, saying if I wanted to fight the case I had to hire a criminal lawyer. ‘It’s totally your choice, sir, what do you want to do right now, fight this case or solve this case?’
I asked if he could send details of the case to my address. He pushed back and said if I would just pay the amount, ‘everything will be fine’.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission Headquarters in Canberra
I told him I was shocked and would have to talk to my wife about it. He faked sympathy like I faked a wife. ‘I understand your problem and situation sir.’
But he immediately went back to the hard sell. ‘So are you going to fight this case or solve this case, tell me.’
My playacting of a man in distress was convincing enough that Michael said ‘Calm down, sir, calm down.’
He said I should just pay the money now and that ‘if you have not done anything wrong, your money will be refunded back in seven to nine days. In order to resolve this case, which bank are you banking with?’
I had finally tired of his nonsense and wasn’t sure how long more I could resist telling him to go jump in a lake (I might not have been that polite).
I hung up. I had a story to write. While writing it, another scammer called, this time from Melbourne.
It seems Border Force has issued an arrest warrant for me over a dodgy package.