Someone tried to rob me.
No, a masked bandit did not grab my handbag and run down the street while I wailed for someone to stop him. And no, I was not held at knife point at an ATM. Yesterday, as I sat in my studio, someone tried to rob me over the phone. OVER THE PHONE. And people wonder why I hate phone calls! Luckily, the disgusting thieves were not able to take any money from me. But I'm completely shaken and mystified by the experience. I used to think that phone scammers were morons who could never entice money out of anyone with a brain in their head. I was wrong. The people who tried to rob me yesterday were calculative, malicious and extremely well planned.
Here's what happened.
I got home from the gym, and noticed that I had a missed call. Which is not uncommon, I get at least one call a day from a spam number which I ignore. But this was different, this number had left a voicemail. Must actually be someone trying to contact me. I listened to the voicemail Hello Ms Williams, this is Mark Benson from the ATO please return my call urgently on (02) 6172 0721. Thanks. Uh oh, this doesn't sound good. The mailbox then played another voicemail that I'd never listened to from about a month ago, and was exactly the same message from the same man. So I'm thinking, oh shit, they've been trying to get in touch with me and I've ignored them! Maybe it's because I haven't done my tax return this year...
So I called them back.
At this point, I'm not too alarmed, could just be a routine call from the ATO about something totally boring. The phone dials and a woman with an Indian accent answers the phone - This is the ATO my name is blah blah may I ask who's calling please? Naturally I tell her my name, and say that I'm returning a call. I hear her type my name into her computer, Yes Ms Williams, do you live at , Greensborough? Yep, that's me. I didn't think it was weird that they'd use my address to confirm who I was. Of course the ATO knows my address. She also gave me a customer reference number and told me the call would be recorded, just like any government agency you call up. But this is when things got weird.
Ms Williams, are you aware that the Australian Government has filed a lawsuit in your name?
I'm sorry... what? The woman repeated her statement. I was bewildered, and cautious. I asked her to clarify, and she said that because I'd failed to comply with numerous letters sent to my address, the Government had deemed me uncooperative and issued the lawsuit. WHAT LETTERS? I never got any letters! At this point I was getting frustrated, and she assured me that the letters had been sent to the address that I'd confirmed earlier. Maybe I'd lost some mail? She said that my tax return between the dates of 2010 - 2015 had been audited, and that I was indebted to the amount of $6,200. WHAT THE FUCK. Okay, now I'm freaking out. That's impossible, I tell her. I've never heard anything about this, there must be a mistake. She asks me if I will be cooperative in resolving this issue. I ask her what is the reason for the debt, I don't earn enough to owe that much in the first place. She repeats her question, will you be cooperative in resolving this matter? If you are not cooperative, the warrant for your arrest will remain and police will be issued to your address tomorrow.
WHAT. THE. FUCK.
This is about the time when the panic starts to set in. Now, that's not to say I'm convinced that this isn't a scam. I wasn't 100% sure that it was really the ATO, but I wasn't 100% that it was really a scam. Which, when you think about it, is the worst place to be in. My brain was stretched to the limit trying to figure out exactly what was going on. Anyway, I told the woman I was being cooperative and that she needed to help me understand what was happening. She took me through a series of mundane questions - did you submit your own tax returns or was it an accountant? Do you still live at this address? Do you have a prior criminal record? Have you ever been arrested? Have you ever conducted fraudulent activity? I answered the questions as best I could - her monotone voice and standard line of questioning were convincing. Would a scam really bother with all of this? The interrogation begins. The woman became annoyed with my constant questioning - I would repeatedly ask her if this was a scam, so she transferred me to her supervising officer. I recognised his voice immediately - this is senior officer Mark Benson, state your name please. It was the man who'd originally rung me and left a voicemail. He also had an Indian accent, which could swing in favour of his credibility or not - but he was very serious. He recounted all the standard official sounding crap that the previous woman had - but for some reason talking to him was extremely stressful. I later realised that he was using intimidation tactics and interrogation techniques to manipulate me. I DIDN'T STAND A CHANCE. I spent about 30 minutes on the phone with this man - and during that time he completely broke me mentally and emotionally. I felt powerless, hopeless and terrified. SO, this douche bag said that I was going to have to pay back the Australian Government today. They'd sent me plenty of letters, but my deadline was up. If I wasn't cooperative, I'd be arrested tomorrow. If I hung up the phone at any point, I'd be arrested tomorrow. If I didn't give him the correct answer to his questions, I'd be arrested tomorrow. If I didn't pay back the money today - I'd be arrested tomorrow. Try hearing that and remaining in a balanced state of mind! Bloody hell. He carefully explained what I needed to do. Suddenly, I was a hostage. Follow my instructions exactly - do not hang up the phone - do as I say or you will be deemed uncooperative and the warrant for your arrest will stand. Gulp. He explained that the payment needed to be made using Tax Pay Vouchers - this was the standard form of legal tender that the government uses to collect unpaid tax. I'd never ever heard of a Tax Pay Voucher before - but because I'm not a grown-up, it was plausible that I'd simply missed that class in adulthood training. Do you have $6,200 in your account today Ms Williams? Um - I'm not going to tell you that over the phone - you could be trying to scam me. I literally said that to him, and he simply continued on with the charade. He retorted that he wasn't asking for my bank details, he was simply clarifying if I was able to make the payment today. Exasperated, I just said yes to move things along. Then shit got weird. He asked me if I had any Woolworths, Coles, Big W, 7/11 , Myer or K-Mart near my house. Uh - what? Apparently that's where you get Tax Pay Vouchers from. Which obviously sounded ludicrous. He said I would need to buy several vouchers to cover my debt of $6,200, as the vouchers could only be purchased at a maximum of $500. What even? How do these places sell these items that I'd never heard of before? How did I miss that boat so thoroughly? Ugh. I was pulling my hair out at this stage. My body was in full hard core stress mode. Then he told me to get in my car and drive to one of these shops - while remaining on the phone to him. Once I'd purchased the vouchers I needed to tell him the verification codes on the back of each one. If I hung up the phone at any point, I would be deemed uncooperative and the warrant for my arrest would remain. FUCK. This is when I started to fully break in half, I screamed into the phone - do you realise how CRAZY this sounds? Direct me to the nearest ATO office and I will handle this in person! But I will not resolve this issue over the phone because you could be a scam! Mr Mark Benson from the ATO did not handle that well - YOU ARE WASTING MY TIME MS WILLIAMS. YOU ARE BEING UNCOOPERATIVE AND YOU WILL BE ARRESTED TOMORROW FOR YOUR OUTSTANDING DEBT TO THE AUSTRALIAN GOVERNMENT. He hung up the phone. The dial tone sounded - I burst into tears and had a panic attack. Not because he'd gotten my money, not because I thought the ATO was going to arrest me - but because I'd just had someone actively trying to fucking rob me for the last 40 minutes. Imagine if you were fighting someone off who was trying to grab your purse for that long? My body and mind were exhausted. I was traumatised. Crying uncontrollably - I called my Mum. Level headed and calming - she managed to talk me out of my state of panic and despair. Through sobs and wailing, I explained to her what had just happened. Thankfully, she explained that it was going to be okay no matter whether it was really from the ATO or if it was a scam. Phew! She told me to look up a phone number online for the ATO and confirm whether or not that call was from them. So I did.
It was a scam.
Seems silly, because all along I kept saying that it was a scam. I don't know why it was still so traumatic. I rang the real ATO and spoke to a lovely man named Derek - who told me that I hadn't been contacted by the ATO, and I didn't owe them any money. I was so relieved that I started crying again and professed my undying gratitude to Derek and all his descendants. Apparently the scam has been getting a lot of people - and it was lucky that I'd rang him to clarify. He helped me file a report with the police and everything. What a lad! God, I was so bloody relieved. Shaken, crying, exhausted - and relieved. Now - you might be wondering, as I was - how were they going to get any money out of me? They never asked for my bank details, and they were sending me on some wild goose chase for non-existent Tax Pay Vouchers. It was only when I recounted this story to my friend Sam that the mystery was solved - they were sending me to the shops to buy fucking GIFT CARDS! They're available everywhere, they only go up to the value of $500 - and you can use them online via the verification code on the back. Bingo! How hilarious that these scammers are making a living from people buying them gift cards! And once people were at the shops looking for Tax Pay Vouchers, how would they have gotten them to buy gift cards instead? Crazy. But it must work. And that was that. Bit of a long post, I know. But I found it somewhat therapeutic recounting the experience. I'm not sure if I managed to convey just how awful it was - or whether you'll consider me a sensitive fool who got too caught up in it all. Either way, I hope that when you get the call from the ATO you'll be able to hang up the phone immediately and save yourself the horridness I went through.