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Fake refunds: small businesses left with tax debts after trusting scammers

Small business owners are being urged by the Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman, Bruce Billson, to be on high alert to the rising number of criminals who may try to impersonate their business or a government agency such as the Australian Taxation Office.

Mr Billson said Scam Awareness Week was an ideal time for small business owners to take a few extra moments to check they have appropriate safeguards in place to avoid falling victim.

“Some recent cases have left small business owners with tax debts after they gave their myGov details to scammers who they thought were friends or people helping them,” he said.

“I urge small and family businesses not to give anyone access to important information such as your myGov password and login, and always check agreements you sign up to and make sure you get what is promised in return.

“Scams come in all shapes and sizes. Some are from very sophisticated hackers but others are credit card scams or fraudsters who claim to be trying to help you with your small business as they rip you off.

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“Scamwatch says 3 in every 4 scam reports involve criminals pretending to be people we should trust. If an offer looks too good to be true then it probably is. Trust your Spidey-senses.

“Sadly, if a criminal impersonates your business, it not only costs you and your customers money but can damage your brand and lead to a loss of consumer trust and confidence and the ability to operate.  Too often, a cyber attack can be an enterprise-ending event for a small business.”

Mr Billson said in one recent case a sole trader trusted a friend to complete their Business Activity Statement and handed over their myGov account login and details.

“The ‘friend’ lodged fake business activity statements understating the sole trader’s income and generating refunds which the ‘friend’ directed to their own bank account instead of the sole trader’s account. The sole trader now owes the ATO over $400,000,” Mr Billson said.

In another case, a small business was told the Tax Office was helping to fund small businesses through myGov and they could be supported if they handed over their myGov details which they did but the scammer made false claims and left the small business with a $45,000 tax debt.

“The lesson here is to only use registered tax agents and accountants and do not give your myGov details to anyone,” the Ombudsman said.

Mr Billson said he was also concerned about a scam involving website design or search engine optimisation.

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“One small business owner who contacted us paid $25,000 before she realised that she could be the subject of a scam,” he said.

“Scammers may sign you up for a single or monthly payment which they take from your credit card but they continue to do so even after the agreement for their service has expired.

“In some cases they take the money but the website promised is never delivered. And businesses can face an enormous effort trying to exit these arrangements after realising they have been duped. My rule of thumbs is to spend 1 hour for every $1000 your are likely to spend checking out that it is legit, that the business you intended dealing with is real and to make sure it can deliver what is being promised.

“These businesses either don’t have business addresses or impersonate legitimate other businesses for cover, and if they use an ABN it often belongs to a similarly named legitimate business.”

Mr Billson said small businesses should check the credentials of these type of suppliers such as their ABN and business name and if they don’t match or something doesn’t appear right, investigate further.

Mr Billson said small business who were concerned they might be the victim of a scam should contact the new National Anti-Scam Centre’s ‘Report a Scam’ page on their website www.scamwatch.gov.au/report-a-scam Or they can contact www.asbfeo.gov.au

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