I had an interesting telephone call at home a while back. A well-spoken and very polite gentleman called to say that he was from the Inland Revenue and had noticed I had an overpayment of tax on my records that had accrued over the past couple of years. As the Inland Revenue were trialling a new telephone service to save written administration when the amounts overpaid are only a hundred pounds or so, he was calling me to go through my tax affairs on the phone and if correct, then issue the refund. This was obviously a scam designed to empty my bank account, but with the number withheld and my mobile phone out of reach there was little I could do at that moment to have the call traced and so I decided to have a chat with the caller to find out the extent of their knowledge. Over the course of the next few minutes, I found out that they had a number of my personal details correct and that the caller enjoyed his work very much (I bet he did). The caller also knew my employer’s details but critically (for them) not what I did for a living. Obviously they weren’t a reader of my column, for when they found out that I was a genuine, qualified taxation adviser there was a very loud click as the phone was put down at the other end and strangely they have not called back since.
It is a sad fact that cons and scams are becoming more and more prevalent as, no matter how hard you try, more and more information about us can be sourced from the internet, social media (even if not our own), our shopping habits and so on. The schemes themselves are becoming more and more sophisticated as we see fewer begging letters from abroad seeking assistance to rescue trapped millions in some far off bank or winnings from lotteries from abroad that you can never actually remember entering. Instead, the scams today are much more plausible with official-looking letters and emails using copied logos and headed notepaper often using official terms written in official language. They are becoming much harder to spot although there are a few tell-tale signs to watch out for in correspondence:
- The English is not quite grammatically correct – who uses the phrase “fiscal activity” in relation to one’s earnings?
- Any references used do not actually match with your own paperwork
- You weren’t expecting to get a refund or you don’t remember entering the competition
- They will ask you for your bank/credit card details or PIN numbers
- The Inland Revenue no longer exists – it is now HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC)
- HMRC very rarely use email to ask questions (and rarer still phone you up)
In a phone call, a scammer will often pretend to be from a telephone or computer company and then try to trick you into believing that there is a problem with your equipment (if this happens simply thank them for letting you know, put the phone down and get someone else to check it for you) or if your phone appears to be dead, redial using a mobile or a neighbour’s telephone to check. Never call back using the telephone number that they give you.
For businesses, be extremely wary of new banking or payment instructions appearing to come from your customers – often at short notice. A lot of businesses make payments only once or twice a month and around the time of the “payment run” is when the scammers try to strike – when everyone is under pressure to meet deadlines. Make sure that both you and your staff know what to do if you receive instructions to change payment details – even if it apparently comes from a colleague in another office. The obvious thing in a calm office is to make a separate call or email back to the client and seek confirmation (on a known and trusted email or telephone number – not the one telling you to change details). But in a stressful environment when people in charge may not be available, make sure that you have clear controls in place – for example, do your staff have the confidence and the authority to stop that element of the payment run if in any doubt whatsoever? Surely it is better to delay the payment while everything is triple checked rather than run the risk of being conned and losing not only money but your potential client and future business as well?
The scammers and con merchants will not be going away anytime soon and so we all have to be wary. The old adage of “If it sounds too good to be true, then it usually is” still applies – today possibly more than ever.
By the way, I never did get my tax refund…
For further information on any of the above points or to discuss your tax affairs generally, please do not hesitate to contact Robin Beadle.