ATO scam calls may be a thing of the past

Receiving scam calls purportedly from the ATO and other official departments may be a thing of the past with the completion of a successful trial of software to block specific calls. Under the most commonly reported version of the scam, people would receive calls which appear to come from a legitimate phone number used by the ATO.

This scam is usually referred to as “spoofing” and the scammers use software to mislead the caller line identification technology on most mobile phones and modern fixed line phones. Rather than transmitting the actual, typically overseas, phone number the call is coming from, the nefarious software “overstamps” it with another phone number. Commonly, the numbers used are widely publicised, such as the numbers used by taxpayers to call the ATO.

In 2019, 107,000 impersonation scams were reported to authorities. The scams constantly evolve according to the headlines, for example, in February, the scam was targeted at bushfire victims promising them an 8% bonus on their tax return. More recently, scammers purporting to be from the ATO have been calling members of the public asking them to provide their bank account details as a part of the JobKeeper payment requirements.

Aside from those scams driven by headlines, there is always the tax refund and tax debt scams which are particularly prevalent towards the end of October when most individual tax returns are due, but some could run year-round. In fact, just recently, the ATO has alerted the community to an SMS scam which claims that recipients are due to receive a tax refund and to click on a legitimate looking link. The ATO notes that it will never send an email or SMS asking people to access online services via a hyperlink.

Due to the prevalence of these scams and the large amount of money lost by individuals, Australian telcos along with the ATO and Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) collaborated on a 3-month trial of technology to block these scam calls appearing to originate from legitimate ATO phone numbers. Under the Scam Technology Project, participating telcos used software to identify calls which had been “overstamped” with specified ATO phone numbers and blocked them.

According to the government, the trial has been “highly successful” in blocking spoof calls from specified ATO numbers. It notes that while it will not stop scammers randomly ringing Australians pretending to be from the ATO, it will stop specific ATO numbers appearing in the caller line identification on the recipient’s phone, making the scam seem less convincing.

The trial is not the only initiative under the project, the industry peak body for the telecommunications sector (Communications Alliance) is also developing an industry code called Reducing Scam Calls, which will mandate steps telcos must take to identify, trace and block scam calls. In addition, the Alliance will create an information-sharing framework for telcos to work with regulators against phone scams.

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