Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Phone Scams: It CAN happen to you!!

I was lying in bed reading the other night when my Facebook messenger app dinged at me.  It turned out to be a message from a friend, who had a story to tell me, a story of how a perfectly normal, intelligent person can be taken in by a sophisticated phone scam.

My friend's partner had received a phone call from someone claiming to be from the Inland Revenue Department (for you non-Kiwis, that's New Zealand's tax department).  This person used a combination of pop-psychology and an escalating series of threats to scam three thousand dollars in gifted iTune vouchers.

As my friend put it "It sounds like a silly thing to do," but if you think you couldn't be fooled by these people, think again. My friend's partner is intelligent, educated, not gullible or a "sucker." The tactics these scammers use are clever and sophisticated, they break people down and manipulate their responses. You CAN be fooled, you CAN be sucked in by these scams! The best way to avoid this happening to you is to be fully informed about the way these scams are run, and the ways in which you can protect yourself and identify possible scammers before they put you out of pocket.

Phone scammers will often have a number of personal details, which makes their calls seem more legitimate. Don't be fooled! This is the internet age and sadly, personal details aren't that difficult to come by if you know how to find that kind of information.

You may be given a phone number to call with either a Wellington prefix (04) or an Auckland prefix (09). Don't be fooled! If the caller is claiming to be from a government department, remember that most government departments have free 0800 numbers which you can call. Hang up the phone, look up the correct number for the department the caller is claiming to represent and call it to verify what they are telling you.

These scammers are very aggressive, and may make threats in an attempt to keep you on the line, or call back with various threats if you hang up on them. DON'T fall for these tactics!! The kinds of threats these scammers commonly use include threats of deportation for foreign nationals, and threats of police involvement and possible prison time. While they have you on the phone, feeling stressed and anxious about your situation, it's easy to force you to take the next step and pay out in an effort to avoid further legal action. But if you remain calm and think logically, the threats really don't hold up to close scrutiny.

Lets look at two of the most common threats being used in this latest phone scam; deportation and tax evasion charges.

Deportation is a threat that's used by scammers against foreign nationals living and working here in New Zealand, and this latest scam has targeted a number of Indian nationals. But deportation isn't something that just happens out of the blue for people who are here on legitimate visas and are not overstayers. NZ Immigration assess each individual situation, which takes time, and potential deportees have rights, including the right to appeal any decision made by NZ Immigration.

If someone calls you claiming to be from NZ Immigration and threatening you with deportation unless you pay a sum of money immediately, THIS IS A SCAM! Hang up immediately and call the police.

What about the threat of criminal charges for unpaid tax? I copied this directly from Inland Revenue's website...

"We will only take legal action when all other efforts to secure payment of the overdue tax have failed."

There are three stages which Inland Revenue goes through to collect overdue taxes.  The first is to contact you by letter, notifying you that you have unpaid taxes, and giving details of the amount, any penalties and interest that has accrued, and with a payment slip included.  This letter will also give you the phone number to call to discuss your debts and explore payment options.

Stage two is making repayment applications to your employer, bank or a third party debt collection agency, such as Baycorp.  These applications may result in payments being deducted directly from your wages, and again, you will be notified of any deductions by your bank or your employer as well as by IRD.  If the debt is sent to a third party, such as a collection agency, they will contact you to discuss payment options and will be able to provide you with proper paperwork from Inland Revenue, proving that they are an authorised collection agency, acting on IRD's behalf.  

If you are contacted by a debt collector who cannot or will not provide this proof, DO NOT pay them any money!  Contact IRD immediately and verify that the debt collector is a legitimate debt recovery agent acting on IRD's behalf.  

Only after both of these stages have fully being utilised will IRD engage in legal action, and even then, this is extremely unlikely to result in any kind of prison sentence.  The most common outcome of legal action from Inland Revenue is bankruptcy and liquidation of any assets to recover debt, not a criminal conviction or sentence.  Unless you're engaging in thousands, or even millions, of dollars worth of white collar fraud, then you're screwed and phone scams are probably the least of your problems.  LOL.

As I've mentioned previously, this particular scam is just the latest incarnation of something that's been happening since not long after Alexander Graham Bell first invented the phone. I don't have the time or bandwidth to go through every single scam you may be targeted by, but you can continue to educate yourself by using the Scamwatch website to learn about the latest scams and how you may be targeted. And follow this simple rule...

DO NOT make any kind of payment based on threatening or coercive phonecalls, texts or emails, and DO NOT give out your passwords or banking details!

If you have been victimised by a phone scam (or any other kind of scam), call the police immediately and report it. Call your bank as well and see what they can do to reverse any payments. Finally, report the scam to Scamwatch and use the "Been Scammed" section to explore your options..

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