`Tis the season to be wary: ‘ATO’ phone scammers get a dose of their own medicine

The bogus ATO calls threaten Australians with jail if they don't produce the cash immediately.

The bogus ATO calls threaten Australians with jail if they don't produce the cash immediately. Photo: Getty

It’s scam season and the con artists are out in force, according to the Australian Taxation Office, which has been inundated with the reports of the latest brazen gambit to separate Australians from their hard-earned cash.

The ATO received more than 37,000 reports of scam attempts last month, with one senior citizen being milked for more than $236,000 over five months of repeated calls and threats.

Some people sniff a scam and hang up straight away. Others panic and pay up. A few, like Sydney resident William Brougham, go one step further and give the fraudsters a taste of their own medicine.

Although scams come via text messages, emails, letters and social media, it’s phone calls that people need to be particularly wary of right now.

ATO Assistant Commissioner Karen Foat told The New Daily the ATO saw a November surge in scam calls, especially those using masking software that identifies the incoming call as what appears to be a legitimate phone number but isn’t anything of the kind.

“We’ve seen a large increase in activity,” Ms Foat said. “Scammers know this is the time when tax debts become due and Australians are expecting to have contact with the ATO.”

In a typical call, a robotic voice claiming to be that of an ATO enforcement officer will demand the recipient respond on a specified number and threaten arrest if the call is not returned soon.

The current scam will often demand payment of varying amounts – often in the region of $5000.

If a first payment is made, the scammers will often contact the victim again and attempt to obtain a further payment via iTunes and Google Play cards, prepaid Visa or gift cards, transfers into personal bank accounts and cryptocurrency.

More than $1.2 million was stolen from Australians in November alone after scammers frightened people into handing over their money, according to the ACCC’s ScamWatch.

While a few Australians are taking revenge by ‘scamming the scammer’, the ATO’s advice is to report any suspicious calls on their dedicated scam line: 1800 008 540. This helps the ATO get an accurate picture of what’s happening in the current robo-scam epidemic. The ATO also has a dedicated scams website.

“Lately scammers have been tricking victims by pretending to do a three-way call with their tax agent or the police,” Ms Foat said. “But it isn’t their agent or police, it’s another scammer.”

This is exactly what happened to Mr Brougham, who received the robo-call on Thursday. When he rang back the scammer pretended to be in touch with his accountant.

William Brougham is so disgusted by the scammers’ tricks he has been playing them at their own game.

Mr Brougham told the New Daily he’s concerned the scammers could dupe the elderly and vulnerable:

“I was immediately aware of this scam, but many people have contacted me to say they were not. The more people who are aware of this the better,” Mr Brougham said.

“I was a victim of a computer scam eight years ago, at a time when I was quite vulnerable. These people are vultures and those of us who feel up to it should challenge them.”

Mr Brougham, 41, did exactly that. Upon receiving the robo-call, he noted the call-back number and made contact – giving them a taste of their own medicine by ‘scamming the scammer’ several times.

In one call, he pretends to be “Harold Bishop of Ramsay Street, Erinsborough” and in another, he is “Tony Abbott of Manly”. The shonky call centre operators appear to believe him.

Throughout the conversations, the ATO impersonator admonishes him for calling back late, threatening him with arrest unless he pays his purported tax bill immediately.

In one of the calls, the scammer comes clean under pressure and confesses, but defends himself by saying “everyone needs to make a living”.

“I’m doing my job,” the scammer says at one point, adding that he “doesn’t feel guilty” and laughing as Mr Brougham reprimands him for being a “coward and a thief”.

“Why can’t you live an honest life and have a proper job?” Mr Brougham asked at one point.

The scammer responded, “Why don’t you hire me, give me a job?” When asked if he can sleep at night, the con artist responds “definitely” and insists he is “a gentle person”.

At the end of the conversation, Mr Brougham called out the scammers for being con artists, and puts “a curse on you and your family”.

  • ATO Scam line: 1800 008 540, open 8.00am–6.00pm, Monday to Friday. Online:
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