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Five ways to avoid getting ripped off by a million-dollar tax scam

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Guard your wallet against 'spoofing', a tax scam that is costing many Australians thousands of dollars. Here are five ways to avoid getting ripped off.

Since January this year, the ATO has reported over 40,000 cases of scammers impersonating the government agency and raking in just over a million dollars to date from unsuspecting victims.

The elaborate scam starts with a phone call, email or SMS that looks and sounds like the real deal. Using new phone technology called 'spoofing', for example, a legitimate ATO phone number is displayed when the call is actually coming from scammers paid to impersonate ATO staff.

But there are telltale signs that the call is not geniune. The tax office will not:

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1. Send you an email or SMS asking you to click on a link directing you to a login page.

2. Threaten individuals with immediate arrest, jail or deportation.

3. Request payment via iTunes or Google Play cards, pre-paid Visa cards or bitcoin.

4. Request a fee to release a tax refund owed to you.

These unusual requests are enough to set off alarm bells but what if the scammer asks for payment through bank transfer? That's when the deception often succeeds.

As far as the scammers are concerned, the operation is a success even if it only deceives a small proportion of the population. Besides spoofing, scammers use "robocall" technology to set up pre-recorded phone calls to thousands of Australians every day. So many people fell for it that the ATO was prompted to issue a warning early this month.

Here are their top tips to protect yourself from scammers.

1. Know your tax affairs. Contact your tax agent or log into myGov to check your tax affairs.

2. Only give your personal information to people you trust and try not to share it on social media.

3. If you are unsure about whether a call, SMS or email is genuine, don't reply. Call the ATO's dedicated scam reporting line on 1800 008 540 to verify.

4. Get to know legitimate ways to make payments - scammers may use threatening tactics to trick their victims into paying false debts through pre-paid gift cards or by sending money to non-ATO bank accounts. To check that a payment method is legitimate, visit gov.au/howtopay.

5. Tell your family and friends about this type of scam. If you or someone you know has fallen victim to a tax-related scam, call the tax office as soon as you can.

Scammers come up with new tricks once enough people are warned about spoofing and auto-messages so it's important to stay well-informed and visit ato.gov.au/scams to verify or report a scam.

Michelle Baltazar is editor-in-chief of Money magazine and an award-winning journalist, editor and publisher. She has worked at media companies including BRW, Shares Magazine (London) and industry newspaper Financial Standard, and has written about superannuation, wealth management, investment technology and financial advice.
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