Threat-based impersonation scams

Threat-based impersonation scams are common and can be traumatic for the victim.

Typically, scammers pretend to be from a government agency or well-known company who threaten you into handing over your money or personal information. This type of scam is commonly received over the phone, though it can also come via email or text message.

How the scam works

Scammers will impersonate government officials and say that you have an outstanding tax debt or that there are problems with your government benefits, immigration papers or visa status, and you need to pay the debt or other fees to fix the problem.

They will threaten you with a fine, disconnection, legal costs, or sometimes suggest you will be arrested or deported.

Case study – tax fraud

Eliza received a call apparently from the 'Australian Taxation Office', the caller told her she was being charged with tax fraud. Eliza apparently owed $4900 and if she didn't pay an initial instalment of $500, a warrant for her arrest would be issued and she could face jail.

The scammer pressured her by saying she had to make a decision and pay now, or be arrested. So Eliza gave the caller her credit card details, only to quickly realise she had been scammed.

Scammers will often pretend to be from a well-known, trusted business or organisation, including energy or telecommunications providers, Australia Post, banks and law enforcement agencies. They may call and ask for remote access to your computer to fix a problem. Or they may email you fake invoices or fines, and threaten to cancel your service or charge excessive penalty fees if you don't pay them immediately.

Case study – help Telstra

Olive received a call from 'Telstra' and was told her internet would be cut off immediately as her computer had been hacked and her accounts were at risk. She was shown the hackers' supposed logins, and was pressured into giving her online banking details.

Olive was asked to help catch the hackers by buying iTunes gift cards and was told $1600 would be transferred to her to pay for it. When Olive checked her account it looked like there was $1600 available. Olive bought the cards, gave the details to the 'Telstra technician' and was instructed not to use her computer until he called her back the next day. Olive became suspicious, and contacted her bank, who confirmed that $1600 had not been transferred and her account was now overdrawn.

If the scammer sends an email, it is likely to include an attachment or a link where you can download proof of the 'bill', 'fine' or 'missed delivery details', but opening the attachment or downloading the file can infect your computer with malware.

Case study – infringement notice

Anthony received an email apparently from 'the Australian Federal Police' with an infringement notice attached for a speeding violation. If he didn't pay the fine within 28 days, enforcement action would be taken and he could be prosecuted in the Magistrates' Court. Anthony attempted to open the attachment, however the file was corrupted. Fortunately, his computer security software alerted him there was a security threat and disabled the file.

Protect yourself

  • When dealing with uninvited or unexpected contact from a government agency or trusted business—whether over the phone, by email, in person or through social media—always consider the possibility that it may be a scam.
  • If you're unsure whether a call or email is real, verify the identity of the contact through an independent source, such as a phone book or online search. Don't use the contact details provided by the caller or in the message they sent to you.
  • Don't be pressured by a threatening caller. Hang up, then check whether their story is real.
  • If you're still unsure, speak to a trusted friend or family member about what has happened.
  • Never send money or give your bank account details, credit card details or other personal information to anyone you don't know or trust..
  • A government agency or trusted business will never ask you to pay by unusual methods, such as a gift or store card, iTunes card, wire transfer or bitcoin.
  • Don't open suspicious texts, pop-up windows or emails and don't click on links or open attachmentsjustdelete them.
  • Never give anyone remote access to your computer if they've contacted you out of the blue—whetherthrough a phone call, pop up window or emailandeven if they claim to be from a well-known company that you know and trust.

What to do if you have been scammed

  • If you've lost money or given personal information to a scammer, there are steps you can take straight away to limit the damage and protect yourself from further loss:
  • If you've sent money or shared your banking or credit card details, contact your financial institution immediately. They may be able to stop or reverse a transaction, or close your account.
  • If you've given your personal information to a scammer, visit IDCARE, Australia's not-for-profit national identity and cyber support service. IDCARE can work with you to develop a specific response plan to your situation and support you through the process.
  • As scammers are often based overseas, it is extremely difficult to track them down or take action against them. So take the time to warn your friends and family about these scams.

More information

Read more about protecting yourself from scams.