The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) and the Australian Tax Office (ATO) have each issued separate warnings following a major upsurge in scam emails, bogus requests, threats and trickery from con artists, fraudsters and thieves.
The ATO has revealed that in the first five months of this year, 226 Australians were duped into handing over AUD 1.2 million to fraudsters. No fewer than 1900 people gave out some form of personal information, including tax file numbers.
The ACCC warns businesses to watch out for scam emails that claim to be from the ACCC but in fact contain links that can infect computers with malware.
Last week, several businesses reported receiving bogus requests from the ACCC to respond to a complaint that had been made about their business, or seek payment for an infringement notice for breach of copyright.
Both scams encourage the recipient to find out more by either clicking on a link disguised as a .pdf file or responding to contact details in the email. In the first scam, the embedded link is actually a .zip file that will download malware on to your computer or device.
“The ACCC is warning people that there are scammers trying to use the ACCC’s name to try and to steal money from businesses,” ACCC deputy chair Dr Michael Schaper said.
“People should be on the lookout for ransomware, which is a type of malware that freezes your computer and demands a ransom for you to be able to access your computer again. Scammers commonly ask for bitcoins or ask you to transfer money by wire transfer but even if you pay the fee, there is no guarantee that your computer will be unlocked.
“Fortunately, no money has been reported lost from these particular scams to Scamwatch yet. The emails are easy to spot as fakes and you can avoid falling victim by checking the email address of the sender before clicking on any links.”
Scammers have been using email addresses such as @accc.govt.au or email@example.com. Australian government agencies do no use free web-based email accounts like outlook.com and genuine emails end with .gov.au, not .govt.au. If you hover your mouse pointer over links they will generally display the real address or file name. Zip and .exe files are easily disguised as pdf files but can contain malware.
“Both of the scam emails circulating are simply addressed to a non-specific ‘Business Owner’ and may contain errors. If you unexpectedly receive an email from the ACCC, do not click on any links or respond to contact details provided in the email. Instead, independently source contact details for the ACCC through an internet search or phone book,” Schaper said.
The Australian Tax Office, meanwhile, is reminding Australians to be on the lookout for tax-related scams during tax time.
Assistant Commissioner Graham Whyte said scammers are particularly active during tax time because of the large number of people lodging their tax returns.
“In the last couple of years, not only have we seen a significant increase in the number of scams reported to us but also the different types of approaches used by fraudsters,” Whyte said.
In 2015 almost 87,000 phone and email scams were reported to the ATO, an increase of over 90% from 2014.
From January to May this year, the ATO has received over 40,500 phone scam reports. Of these, 226 Australians handed over AUD 1.2 million to fraudsters and over 1900 gave out some form of personal information, including tax file numbers.
Mr Whyte said that while most people were able to identify scams, it is important to remain alert during tax time.
“Most Australians are pretty good at catching fraudsters in the act. This is clear from the amount of scams reported to us compared to the number of people handing over money and personal information,” Whyte said.
“We encourage people to continue to be vigilant and to protect their personal information by keeping it private.”
Mr Whyte said that although the ATO makes thousands of outbound calls to taxpayers a week, there are some key differences between a legitimate call from the ATO and a call from a potential scammer.
“We would never cold call you about a debt; we would never threaten jail or arrest, and our staff certainly wouldn’t behave in an aggressive manner. If you’re not sure, hang up and call us back on 1800 008 540,” Whyte said.
“Lately, we have been receiving reports of a variation of this aggressive tax debt scam, where callers impersonating ATO officers demand payment via iTunes gift cards and pre-paid Visa gift cards purchased from supermarkets and department stores.
“We will never request the payment of a tax debt via gift or pre-paid cards such as iTunes and Visa cards. Nor will we ask for direct credit to be paid to a personal bank account.”
Whyte said while the ATO does communicate with people via bulk email, it would never request personal details, such as banking information. If such personal details were required, you would be redirected to ATO Online services.
If you think you have been contacted by a fraudster or have fallen victim to a phone scam, contact the ATO on 1800 008 540.
Authorities give the following advice:
- Do not click on any suspicious links in emails and check the sender’s address very carefully. If you think it is a scam, delete the email.
- Ensure your business has up-to-date virus protection and firewall software installed.
- Regularly back-up your computer’s data on a separate hard drive. If your computer is infected by malware or ransomware you can restore the factory settings and easily re-install all of your software and data.
- Do not respond to contact details provided in unsolicited emails. Independently verify contact details from the phone book or search online for official details.
- Keep your staff informed about security threats and provide them guidance on how to deal with scam emails.
Edited by Peter Needham