Avoid the ‘Fake Tax Debt’ scam

The Fake Tax Debt scam is usually received over the phone, where victims are tricked into thinking they’re speaking to a tax professional. Scammers may claim that victims need to send personal information - like pictures of their passport or drivers licence, or copies of purchased gift cards over message app services – to pay their so-called 'tax debt'.

Small businesses can be susceptible to this scam, because owners and staff can be stretched in managing their day-to-day operations. A phone call from a reputable organisation or a familiar email comes in and they quickly action it or send it to their tax agent to finalise. 

Mario’s story 

One such case is Mario, a homewares entrepreneur from Sydney. He recently received an automated phone message (known as a 'robocall') saying there was a warrant out for his arrest for an overdue tax debt. 

The message instructed him to 'press 1' to 'speak to a tax agent'. He complied and was connected to a male telephone operator impersonating an Australian Taxation Office (ATO) officer, who threatened Mario with a warrant for his arrest if he didn’t pay a $5,000 tax debt. 

As Mario pays a tax accountant to manage his tax affairs, he was immediately sceptical. Alerted to his growing suspicion, the scammer then asked Mario for his tax agent’s phone number, which Mario gave without thinking. 

The fraudster then conference-called a second scammer, acting as a fake tax agent, who informed Mario that the tax debt had arisen because of a mistake on his account, and that he must pay the debt immediately and they will reimburse him later. 

The scammers then told Mario the only way the debt could be paid was with Google Play cards. Mario did as instructed and purchased the gift cards from his local supermarket. When he got back home, he scratched the back of the cards to reveal the numbers, took photos of the cards’ number codes and sent the photos to the scammer through his WhatsApp account on his laptop.

He never heard back from the 'tax agents' and sadly, by following the scammers’ instructions, Mario lost $5,000. 

Mario also learnt following his experience that scams like this can also be received via SMS, and that trusted organisations or authorities can also be impersonated over email, or may even try and pressure people into giving them remote access to their computers after approaching them by phone. 

Get help 

The Australian Cyber Security Centre and the ATO recommend the following tips to help you protect your online information during tax time: 

  • Stay alert at all times! Remain one step ahead of cybercriminals with info about how to keep your personal information safe online by following Stay Smart Online on Facebook and signing up to the Stay Smart Online Alert Service.
  • If you are ever unsure whether an ATO interaction is genuine, don’t reply. Call the ATO on 1800 008 540 or visit www.ato.gov.au/scam to verify.
  • If you, your clients or your staff has paid or provided personal identifying information to an ATO impersonation scammer, call the ATO on 1800 008 540 to report.
  • Report suspicious emails claiming to be from the ATO by forwarding the entire email to ReportEmailFraud [at] ato.gov.au and delete the email from your account. Do not click on a link, open an attachment or download a file.
  • If you have been a victim of cybercrime, you can report it at ReportCyber.
  • You can also seek assistance if your identity has been compromised from national identity and cyber support service, IDCARE, on 1300 432 273.

More information

For more information, visit www.staysmartonline.gov.au/taxtime19