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Be Scam Smart - Threat and penalty scams are on the rise

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Friday, 25 June 2021

Threats to life, arrest or penalty (may also be referred to as extortion) involve demands by scammers to pay money that you supposedly owe and threats if you do not cooperate.

Scammers may threaten you with harm (physical or emotional), arrest, legal action or other demands in an attempt to force you into handing over money, typically cash.

Unfortunately, there has been a rise in the incidence of these types of scams so we want to remind you about the warning signs and what to look out for. It’s important to stay up to date, particularly as we see a spike in these scams in the lead up to tax time, where scammers use the ATO as their guise.

How they target you

A scammer may contact you over the phone and impersonate government officials that claim to be from the Australian Tax Office (ATO) or other government agencies. The scammer will ask for payment immediately of an outstanding tax debt and threaten arrest or legal action if you do not comply. Scammers will also send emails claiming you owe money for things like a speeding fine, tax office debt or unpaid bill.

Scammers may also pretend to be from trusted organisations, including energy or telecommunications providers, Australia Post, banks and law enforcement agencies. They may use email to send fake invoices or fines, and threaten to cancel your service or charge you excessive penalty fees if you don’t pay the bill immediately.

If the scam is sent by email, it is likely to include an attachment or link to a fake website where you will be asked to download proof of the ‘bill’, ‘fine’ or ‘delivery details’. Opening the attachment or downloading the file could infect your computer with malware.

Scammers target vulnerable people, such as the elderly and newly arrived migrants. They will often impersonate government officials from agencies such as the Department of Home Affairs, the Services Australia or Centrelink, and the Australian Federal Police. Scammers will tell you that there are problems with your immigration papers or visa status, and threaten deportation unless fees are paid to correct the errors.

The scam is designed to scare you into handing over your money without seeking any further assistance or information.

How to protect yourself

  • Don’t be pressured by a threatening caller. Stop, think and check whether their story is true.
  • A government agency or trusted company will never ask you to pay by unusual methods such as by gift or store cards, iTunes vouchers, wire transfers or Bitcoins.
  • If you receive a phone call from someone threatening you and asking you to pay a fee, hang up and do not respond.
  • Don’t use any contact details provided by the caller. Verify their identity by calling the relevant organisation directly—find them through an independent source such as a phone book, past bill or online search.
  • Do not respond to suspicious texts or emails. If you do, the scammers will escalate their intimidation and attempts to get your money.
  • Never send money or give credit card details, online account details or personal information to anyone you don’t know or trust and never by email or over the phone.

If you are concerned for your safety, please contact the police. If you encounter a threat or extortion scam please report this to us by calling 1300 747 747. You can forward suspicious emails to


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