It came to light from Newspoll that in 1999, the responding rate to random questions on the telephone was 8%. Twenty years later, now that we all have caller ID, where robodialling is a thing, where people are suspicious of anyone who isn't already in their phone's internal lists, and where scammers have trained us to be openly distrustful of unknown callers, the responding rate to random questions on the telephone has fallen to just 2%.
It shouldn't have been a surprise to anyone that the pollsters got the predictions for the 2016 US Presidential Election so wrong, if the input data was so unreliable. It is hardly surprising if we have all been trained to mistrust the intentions of the people on the other end of the phone line.
Not too long ago, we had a client arrive in a massive flap, while on the phone to a scammer who had strung her along to the point where she had already transferred several thousand dollarpounds from one of her accounts to another, and was going to go to the post office and buy lots of prepaid Visa cards to mail to the scammers on the other end of the phone call.
She came to us because she wanted to run it over with us, to make sure it was ok. The full extent of my conversation to scammers was "Good morning, Andrew speak..." before they hung up. They phoned back two minutes later and I again answered and they again hung up. I phoned the number which was reported as dialing in and I was told that the number was not connected¹.
What I found particularly offensive about this was that they'd convinced her that I had left the business and was replaced by someone called Michael and they handed the phone call off to them. I suppose that was supposed to add legitimacy to the scam.
This whole thing lasted about half an hour before I could convince this lady that this was a scammer and that she needed to literally do nothing.
After she had gone, I wondered about the economics of the scam and realised that if they managed to speak to just 2% of people and that if just 2% of those actually forwarded on anything, then the recovery rate at $4/hr world only need to be one every 15 weeks of labour input. If you have someone in a call centre, in a country where labour laws are non-existent, and wages are awful, then the prevalence of these kinds of scams makes complete economic sense.
This was already in my mind earlier in the week when I was phoned up by someone pretending to be from the Australian Taxation Office, who told me that there was a warrant out for my arrest and that unless I paid them $3400, the police would come around to my house and take me to gaol.
Now already as someone who used to work for the Commonwealth Law Courts, I have a better idea of how warrants are issued than probably 90% of the population would. When you couple that with the fact that I am sitting in front of a computer which has access to the ATO's Tax Agent Portal, then it's pretty obvious that I have far more access to information than even someone who works for a debt collection agency and has the legal right to ask questions; which this person pretended to be.
I told this person that I had not been served with a debt collection notice and at that point, they doubled down and told me that merely arguing with them would cause the police to be angry and that I was definitely going to gaol.
So I asked them if there was an arrest warrant out for me, to which they agreed that there was and that I needed to give them my address.
Logically that is an absurdity. Presumably if the police already had an arrest warrant out for me, then they should at least know my last recorded address for service of that warrant. At this point they cited that they were having a convenient 'computer error' and that the phone call was being recorded for evidence.
I kind of feel sorry for these people. Through no merit of my own, I won the lottery of life and was born as a straight white male in the first world and late in history. Materially, I have a better life than practically every king and queen who ever lived. The person at the other end of the phone line, through no fault of theirs, may have been born in a place where even the necessities of life such as reliable potable water might not be guaranteed. In that respect, I can completely understand the motive of jealousy which might arise.
Even so, openly lying to defraud someone by threatening them with gaol time, is I the words of a good doctor who is a client of ours: 'not manners.'
The Australian Taxation Office in all its underfunded glory, doesn't really have the capacity to do much about this sort of thing. If the phone number which these schemes operate by is itself a lie (and you can't phone them back on the number that they've just supposedly called you on), then tracking down these things is like trying to find a needle in a haystack; which by the way can be done, except that the ATO has neither the labour to sort through the hay, nor a powerful enough electromagnet to atract the needle².
The ATO does have an office to deal with scams, which I am sure exists as a public assurance office more than anything else because I seriously doubt their ability to find, much less prosecute these cases.
In the end, after being threatened with a trip to Her Majesty's holiday fun camp, and being roasted with liberal usage of the kind of language that would make a sailor blush³, the address that I gave them for service of my supposed arrest warrant was:
GPO Box 9990
Sydney NSW 2001
I do not expect that they will serve that address with a fake arrest warrant but it would be interesting if they did.
All of this serves as a warning that there are people in the world who will prey on the vulnerable. Never ever ever give away details if you don't have to. Never give away credit card details. Never give someone your Tax File Number. Ring the ATO on 1800 008 540 if you have even the slightest doubt.
Do give them the ATO's address though. If someone is a scammer and they are stupid enough to try and dupe the ATO, they deserve what's coming to them.
And here's some neat advice from the ATO:
²Though with improvements in the matching service across government departments, they are getting better at that.
³It is funny how the decidedly Saxon words became the default swear words of the world.