How to spot an ATO scam call

ATO scams are becoming more common, and they are catching a lot of victims.

As late tax specialists, we know that a lot of people have unfinished business with the ATO, and they are often guilty or anxious about their tax affairs.  In most cases, it’s not as bad as they think.

Even people with a clean tax record can feel nervous when the ATO call.

This underlying anxiety can make you easy prey for a scam caller.

Are you on the phone to a suspected scammer now?

It’s possible you’ve found this page because you’re on a call right now and you’re quickly searching for information.

If so, here are some tips and information.

  1. Keep calm.  Nothing bad can happen from just this phone call. 
  2. Don’t give them any personal information.  Phone scammers are experts at getting you to give out personal details. Don’t do it – even if you’re told they “have to ask to prove your identity”.  The three most useful details to a scammer are (in this order): (1) your credit card details, (2) your date of birth and (3) your tax file number. 
  3. Ask to call them back.  Tell them you can’t talk right now, and ask “Can you give me your details, and I’ll call you back?”.  Even if it is a legitimate call, you are within your rights to end the call, and call back later.
  4. Ask for a reference number for the call.  The ATO tracks activity by a multi-character reference number.  A real ATO operative will be able to give you a reference number. Your accountant can you whether the number is in the usual ATO format or not. 
  5. You’re not getting arrested.  The police don’t arrest people for unlodged tax returns or unpaid personal tax debts. Sometimes, taxpayers are prosecuted by the ATO in court, but it takes years of warnings, final notices, court summonses etc etc.  .
  6. Don’t be fooled by scammers knowing your personal details.  Purely by looking at your Linkedin profile, any scammer can find out where you work, and pretend there was some “underpayment” of tax. .
  7. Call the ATO:  The ATO will verify whether a contact is a scam or not on this number: 1800 008 540 .
  8. If you’re nervous calling the ATO, call your accountant.  Through our online access to the ATO we can tell you how much you really owe, and what is overdue. If the call is legit, we can even call back on your behalf.

If you don’t have an accountant (or you need a new one), call us, and we can help you.  Don’t worry about how many years behind you are.  We’ve seen it all before.

Signs your ATO phone call is fake

  1. They ask for payment over the phone.  Staff from the ATO debt department will encourage a payment arrangement: anything from full payment within 7 days, to a monthly plan over 2 years. 

    They do not ask for payment over the phone.
  2. They provide a dodgy payment method.  The ATO payment methods are BPay with the code 75556, direct debit and direct deposit into the reserve bank account.  You can pay by credit card, but this is done via a secure website, not over the phone. .
    If the caller asks for payment in gift cards, a “wire transfer” or Western Union (or similar) then this is a scam call.  The ATO’s bank account starts with BSB 093 003 (Reserve Bank of Australia).  Any other account is bogus.

    Don’t  make a BPay payment to the ATO without verifying the payment reference number (PRN).  You could easily be given the real BPay code (75556) but a fake PRN. .
  3. It doesn’t come from a private number.  I’ve never received a phone call from the ATO with a caller ID: not from a specific case officer, not from the generic call centre. .
  4. They are calling you after hours.  I’ve had two after hours calls in my 15 year career, and both times they were Perth based staff accidentally assigned to call an east coast accountant, for which the ATO apologised. .
  5. They give you a call back number that is a mobile number or a landline.  ATO phone numbers for individuals are: 1300 650 286 and 13 72 86.  In limited circumstances, you might have a case officer assigned to you with a landline, but this is an exception, not the rule. .
  6. They talk about “filing” tax returns.  You don’t “file” an Australian tax return, you “lodge” it. .
  7. The say they are from Probe Collections, Recoveriescorp or Dun and Bradstreet, calling on behalf of the ATO. According to the ATO website, none of these make collection calls for the ATO anymore. .
  8. They put you through to “your accountant” during the call.

The fake accountant scam

Further to point 8, above, here is a quick explanation of the fake accountant version of the scam.

They will ask you “what’s the name of your accounting firm?”.  The real ATO know if your tax file number is on the “lodgment list” of a tax agent.  In fact, they usually call us first. 

The scammer will then put your call on hold and call an accomplice posing as your accountant. 

Let’s say you tell them your accountant’s name is “Jarrod, from Beyond Accountancy”.  They’ll call their accomplice in the next room who’ll say “This is Bill from Beyond Accountancy.  Jarrod is away sick today, so I am filling in for him.”   The accomplice with verify the scammers claim and suggest you make payments

Calls that seem fake but are actually the ATO

  1. You are called by a debt collector on behalf of the ATO.   Yes, the ATO uses debt collectors to recover overdue tax and GST debts. They are: Probe Operations Pty Ltd, who deliver debt collection notices in person on behalf of the ATO, a well as Milton Graham and Collection House, who make debt collection calls.
  2. They want you to enter an arrangement to pay the debt.  They can ask you to do this.  Tell them you need to calculate the amount you can afford, and that you’ll call back later that week.  They cannot force you to make an arrangement, even if they are sometimes pushy (especially the external collection agencies).
  3. They ask for information to confirm your ID.  ATO staff have privacy standards to uphold, and they need to make sure they are speaking to the right person.  It’s very hard to distinguish between a legitimate request for information, and a scammer trying to steal private details.

    You can simply say “I’m worried this is a scam.  Can you give me your number and I’ll call you back?”.  You don’t want to risk giving away crucial ID information to a scammer.

What should you do if you get a scam ATO call?

Even with the tips we’ve given you, it’s quite hard to tell a scam call from an actual ATO rep.

If it’s a scam, you should take their number, and get off the phone ASAP.

If it’s the ATO, you should take their number, and get off the phone ASAP. 

Either way, you need time to make good decisions, with help from your accountant.

Don’t rush into anything.  Even if you do debt or lodgment issues with the ATO, you’re much better off with an accountant fighting in your corner, than trying to sort it out when you’ve been put on the spot.

If nothing else, we can shield you from having to deal with the ATO, which is a win. Plus, accountants have better access to ATO staff, so we can resolve situations more quickly than you can on your own.

If you think you’ve received a scam call, please pass on as much detail as possible to the ATO here: https://www.ato.gov.au/General/Online-services/Identity-security/Verify-or-report-a-scam/

The ATO also suggests reporting the scam to other authorities.

If you need an accountant to help with tax debts and lodgments, please contact us.  Most late lodgers we see actually end up with a refund.  Even if you don’t, you can pay it off via instalments, and you might even be able to have the fines reduced or waived entirely.

Isn’t it better to know where you stand, rather than worrying about possible doomsday scenarios, and cringing whenever the phone rings?