A Tasmanian woman who narrowly escaped falling prey to a scammer pretending to be from the Australian Tax Office (ATO) has a quick-thinking retail employee to thank.
Ashlee Carey, 28, never thought she would easily fall prey to such a scam, until she found herself on the receiving end of an automated phone call telling her she was being investigated for tax fraud.
Ms Carey, from Longford near Launceston in the state’s north, was told to call back a Melbourne number immediately.
She said the scammer on the other end of the line threatened her with being arrested if she did not comply with his demands.
“[They said] ‘if you put me on hold or if you hang up, you will be arrested’. So I was like, ‘crikey’. I was absolutely petrified,” she said.
Ms Carey was informed that her tax returns were incorrect over recent years, and that she owed about $5000 in back taxes.
Bombarded with information about which tax clauses she had breached, and under the threat of being told not to hang up “because the Federal Police had a warrant out for [her] arrest”, Ms Carey believed what she was hearing.
She said what made the scam seem even more real was that when she asked to speak to her accountant, the scammer agreed.
The scammer asked Ms Carey for her accountant’s name and phone number, then called a third party while she was still on the line.
Ms Carey said the scammer told her that the third party, an Australian man, was her accountant.
“I was the third party on the line as the ATO was having a discussion with my apparent accountant, talking about what the issues were,” she said.
“And my accountant could see the mistakes, he took the blame and mentioned it had to be paid.”
Scammer called back on accountant’s number
To make it worse, when Ms Carey said she wanted to speak with her accountant without the ATO there — the scammer agreed.
Within moments her accountant’s phone number was calling her.
“This was the scariest part, the number that showed up on my phone was my accountant’s number,” Ms Carey said.
Convinced she had to pay up or face five years in jail, Ms Carey was told to go to a local department store to get an electronic ATO debit request form.
Thinking the “coppers were coming for me” she was then told by the scammer to purchase a bunch of iTunes gift cards.
“In my head I was like: ‘Gee that sounds a little suss’,” she said.
“But he then kept saying, ‘you’ll get arrested’, and I just got freaked out again.”
What saved her from going through with the scammer’s demands was Alistair — a customer service employee who noticed she was buying a lot of gift cards, and pointed Ms Carey to a document from the ACCC warning of this very scam.
The store refunded all the cards on the spot and she did not lose any money.
When contacted by the ABC, department store manager Erin Brindle said: “I am really happy with Alistair and his actions, having team members aware of the ACCC Scamwatch makes for a great customer experience.
“I’m so glad we could help Ashlee out, especially at this time of year.”
Scams like the one Ms Carey experienced are very common, constantly netting victims across the country.
ACCC deputy chair Delia Rickard said they were particularly common around the holidays.
“Scammers will take advantage of special days or major events like Christmas to fleece people of their money or personal information,” she said.
Launceston-based social media expert Rick Marton also suggested being wary of friends made online, without having met in day-to-day life.
“While they can sound friendly and supportive, they can often be looking for personal information to access passwords, or of course, hit you up for a loan which is invariably never repaid,” he said.
In November the ACCC received 7500 reports of tax scams, with $400,000 reported lost.
Common holiday scams:
- Online shopping scams: scammers will set up fake online stores or post goods for sale in buy-swap-sell groups or online classified sites to trick people into buying items that don’t exist. This scam cost Australians nearly $3 million in 2018, with more than 8700 reports.
- Travel scams: scammers trick people into believing they’ve won a holiday or scored a really good deal on a travel package, like a cruise. Unfortunately the prize or the cheap accommodation are phony. In 2018, nearly $135,000 was lost to this scam.
- Parcel delivery scams: scammers may ask you to print off a label, do a survey, claim a prize, or view the status of your delivery by clicking on a link or downloading an attachment. Some scammers may even call or text with claims about an unsuccessful delivery. These scams are aimed at getting people to download malware onto their computer, or give up their personal information. People lost about $31,000 to these scams in 2018. Source: Scamwatch, ACCC