‘This is a scam’: ATO fraudster’s shock confession
The message was scary. A man's voice said he had tried to reach me several times and it was urgent: "The Australian Taxation Office is investigating you for tax fraud and a lawsuit has been filed."
It was a lie. But it was the opening gambit of a scam that is believable enough to have lured at least 6000 Australians into handing over personal or financial information since July 1 - and 253 of them have been robbed of nearly $1 million, according to the ATO.
Tax time is prime time for scammers.
Since the end of last financial year, more than 30,000 have received the robocall, which asks people to phone back and then has a scammer try to trap them into providing details they can use for internet fraud.
LISTEN TO THE SCAMMER'S CONFESSION:
But the scammers' ruse does not stand up to much scrutiny.
When I called back this week it took 3:46 minutes to turn the tables on a scammer who even admitted he and scores of colleagues were trying to rip off vulnerable people.
Initially, the man's accented voice on the other end of the line expressed surprise that it had taken me two weeks to call back after receiving the message, implying trouble was imminent for me.
"Two weeks ago!?" he said.
"Yes, that's right," I replied.
"Oh my God, OK".
I told him I was recording the conversation for the purposes of a newspaper story and as I dodged his request to provide my name and address, the following exchange occurred:
Daily Telegraph: "I'd like to know a few details before I give my details."
Scammer: "What data do you need from my side."
DT: "Where are you calling from?"
S: "We're calling you from Australia."
DT: "Where in Australia?"
S: "Uh, I'm not going to share that information. I'll share that information and then you'll call the cops and after that they'll get us arrested."
DT: "Why do you think you're getting arrested if you're from the Australian Taxation Office?"
S: "No, this is not legitimate. This is a scam."
The voice eventually admitted he was calling from overseas and not from Australia as he had insisted minutes before.
He said he worked as a scammer alongside 78 other people because there "was a problem with money" and that he didn't specifically work for a company.
The call abruptly ended when I pressed him on which country he was calling from. He ironically replied that I would have to come and meet him as the information was "confidential".
ATO Assistant Commissioner Kath Anderson said scam calls were increasingly common.
"Sometimes people don't know they've been scammed, Ms Anderson said.
"Or they're embarrassed and don't report it".
The requested payment methods are odd, and should serve as a stark warning to those who make it as far as pulling out their credit cards. Scammers demand money be sent through Bitcoin ATMs, iTunes vouchers, prepaid credit cards or transferring into a personal account.
Ms Anderson stresses that handing over personal or financial information can be just as dangerous as forking out money to scammers directly.
"They sell that (information) on the black market or impersonate the victim and that can cause damage down the track," she said.
Scams are becoming increasingly sophisticated with scammers using new technology and apps to appear legitimate.
When Australians receive scam calls from local numbers, scammers are normally "phone spoofing" from overseas - disguising their real number by changing the caller ID.
In many cases, scammers change their ID to ATO switchboard numbers and the legality of it is particularly murky.
In NSW, phone spoofing is not illegal because there are legitimate uses for it. Corporate companies most commonly spoof their employees' numbers with the company's central number becoming the caller ID rather than the extension.
Australian Competition and Consumer and Commission Deputy Chair Delia Rickard told The Daily Telegraph the legality of spoofing could soon change.
"It's something that a number of agencies are looking in to, but it's early days," Ms Rickard said. "It is absolutely a priority".
NSW Police Financial Crimes Squad Commander Detective Superintendent Linda Howlett said fighting phone scammers was extremely difficult because of the borderless nature of the crime.
"NSW Police Force works closely with our law enforcement partners both here and abroad to target co-ordinated fraud networks," she said.
"These scam artists cold-call landlines and mobiles claiming to be from a well-known business or government agency and then demand some type of payment, often requesting it through money transfer or gift card," Det Supt Howlett said.
"There is not one government agency - nor legitimate business - in Australia that would request payment via these methods".
Overseas scammer call centres are regularly shut down but usually by foreign agencies with wider powers.
"The US Department of Justice and the Indian government have closed down centres in recent times," Delia Rickard said.
"You see a decline in numbers after large centres get shut down but they spring back up again."
For now, the ATO and NSW Police have issued guides for identifying a scam with the main advice being to simply hang up and report the number if you receive one of these calls.
While the ATO might contact Australians by phone, Kath Anderson says its operators won't be abusive or offensive and will never leave a robotic message.
"We won't threaten people with immediate arrest or say that the police are on their way.
"We won't ask them to pay in these unusual payment methods".
She also advised against copying this journalist and calling the number back.
"Don't engage with them, that minimises the risk of giving details," she said.
"If you're feeling pressured, that's how the scammers work. They try to hold you on the phone."
Police have issued the following precautions to reduce the risk of being scammed:
• Never provide your personal or banking details to a person who cold calls you;
• Be careful what personal information you provide over the phone, even if you are the person who made the call;
• Never provide your financial PIN or account passwords over the phone;
• If you have been cold called on a landline and are concerned the line has been compromised, check that the line is free by calling someone you know or use a different phone to make further calls;
• If you are suspicious about the credentials of a person on the phone, ask questions - what's their street address, telephone number, Australian Financial Services Number - if they avoid answering then it could be a scam;
• Never transfer funds to a person or an account you do not know.
You can verify or report a scam with the ATO on 1800 008 540 or Scamwatch