“I WAS VERY SCARED”: INSIDE AN “ATO” SCAM
When Adelaide Uber driver Bhaumik Brahmbhatt got a call on his mobile from a woman claiming to be from the Australian Tax Office, he was immediately suspicious.
According to the “ATO officer”, who had an Australian accent, there had been a mistake made on Bhaumik’s tax return and he owed thousands of dollars.
“I said ‘I don’t believe you,’” said Bhaumik, an Indian immigrant who has lived in Adelaide for 13 years.
“But then she said, ‘Your tax agent will call you in 10 minutes.’ After that, I got a call from my accountant’s mobile number. Then I believed it.”
“In February alone, Australians lost $38 million to scams.”
Bhaumik is one of the many Australians who have fallen prey to elaborate scam operators. In February alone, Australians lost $38 million to scams, according to Australian agency ScamWatch. More than 18,000 cases of scams were reported that month.
Bhaumik, who spoke to vanessastoykov.com.au as a warning to others, lost his entire savings to the scam in 2018, in what was a complex and technologically advanced operation.
When Bhaumik received the call that appeared to be coming from his tax accountant’s mobile, the scammers were employing software known as “caller ID spoofing”, according to the Australian Communications and Media Authority.
The software allows the scammer to disguise their identity or appear to be calling from an official bank, business or agency.
On the other end of the line was a man who called himself “Sanjeev” and claimed to work in Bhaumik’s accountant’s office.
“He said, ‘I’m working with your agent, but he’s in a meeting at the moment,’” recalls Bhaumik.
The man then told Bhaumik to do whatever the ATO wanted. A serious error had been made on Bhaumik’s tax return, and it needed to be rectified.
“The man said, ‘Anything you pay, we will reimburse you tomorrow,’” says Bhaumik.
By now, Bhaumik believed that he was in serious, legal trouble due to the mistake made by his tax agent – but that all would be OK if he just did what they asked.
“There were three people on the line,” he says. “One was the person talking to me, one said they were the police, and one was an ‘ATO’ person.”
Bhaumik also says there was a police car, which appeared to be following him on the street.
“I was very scared,” he said.
The people told him he owed $90,000, but if he paid $8,000 the matter could be resolved that day. After he paid the amount, via a bitcoin ATM (using a QR code that the scammers had sent to his phone), he was told he had to pay a further $12,000 to see “fraud charges” against him dropped.
Having only $12,000 in savings, he borrowed $8,000 from a friend to complete the entire $20,000 transaction.
It wasn’t until later that day when he called his accountant, who had no idea of what he was talking about, that he realised he was the victim of a devastating scam.
“I felt like I’d lost everything,” he says. “My mental health was not good. I had to start again from the beginning.”
Bhaumik now works at SA Pathology but continues to operate his driveshare business to recover what he lost, and pay off his debt to his friend.
“It’s taken a long time to get everything back,” he said. “I tell my story to warn others. I don’t want them to be victims.”
His advice is simple: don’t trust anyone who cold calls you about tax or your finances, even if the caller ID displays the right number.
“I think they’re very intelligent to pull off such a scam,” he said. “It’s a pity they are not using their minds for something else.”
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