In a scandal that shook the nation, the TikTok tax fraud saw a staggering $1.7 billion paid out in fraudulent refunds, with an additional $2.7 billion in fraudulent claims halted in their tracks. With around 56,000 alleged perpetrators and over 100 arrests to date, how did this scandal spiral out of control?
A Victimless Hack? Think Again!
Initially, the scheme was touted as a harmless hack that could deposit tens of thousands of dollars into your bank account effortlessly. The simplicity of the scheme, coupled with Australia’s self-assessment system designed to facilitate small business startups, inadvertently paved the way for the ‘TikTok fraud’ to go viral.
How Did It All Begin?
“Everyone else got refunds, it’s OK, it’s just a temporary loan [from the ATO].” – A TikTok social influencer
In 2021, videos began circulating that detailed a method to coax the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) into transferring money into individuals’ accounts. This wasn’t a loan, but a hack that sometimes resulted in substantial sums being transferred with no questions asked. As the scheme gained traction, facilitators emerged, promising to handle all the necessary procedures once they received your personal details.
The fraudsters created fictitious businesses, applied for Australian Business Numbers (ABNs), often using their real names, and then filed bogus Business Activity Statements (BAS) to claim GST refunds.
By the end of 2021, banks started noticing an increase in suspicious activities, particularly large, uncharacteristic refunds in some accounts, prompting them to freeze numerous accounts and report these activities to the ATO, as mandated by the Anti-Money Laundering & Counter Terrorism legislation.
The ATO Fights Back
In April 2022, the ATO initiated Operation Protego to curb the rapid surge in GST refund fraud by individuals not genuinely engaged in business. However, by this time, the scheme had already gone viral.
By May 2022, the average GST refund claimed was $20,000, involving around 40,000 individuals. The ATO acknowledged that approximately $850 million had been paid out in potentially fraudulent claims. This figure escalated to $1.2 billion by June 2022, prompting the ATO to reject $1.7 billion in fraudulent claims and initiate arrests of scheme promoters.
The Unsettling Reality
It’s baffling to comprehend how an estimated 56,000 Australians believed that a hack had been uncovered that allowed them to claim thousands of dollars in tax refunds as a ‘loan’ from the ATO, an entity not known for its generosity or lax attitude towards tax revenue.
Moreover, the widespread acceptance of this scheme, promoted on TikTok, which involved falsifying records at various stages, failed to raise red flags. Unfortunately, being naive doesn’t serve as a valid defense against fraud.
Caught in the Web?
“The ATO has zero tolerance for any fraudulent or corrupt behaviour that may in any way impact the ATO.”
The TikTok tax fraud has had a profound impact, affecting 56,000 taxpayers caught up in its web. The scheme promoters and facilitators, including members of criminal organizations and youth crime gangs, form the innermost circle of this scandal. Over 100 individuals have been arrested, with more than 10 convicted for their involvement, facing up to 10 years in prison.
The second tier includes those who actively participated in the scheme, falsely declaring business operations and submitting fraudulent GST refund claims. These individuals are likely to face penalties and criminal proceedings, emphasizing the importance of cooperation with the ATO to mitigate potential repercussions.
Lastly, identity theft victims form the outer circle, their details exploited to generate fraudulent GST refunds. The ATO has reported instances of buying and selling myGov details to access refunds, urging individuals to monitor their myGov accounts closely and report any unusual activity promptly.
The TikTok Scandal Timeline
“Nobody is giving money away for free or offering loans that don’t need to be paid back.” – ATO Deputy Commissioner and Chief of the Serious Financial Crime Taskforce (SFCT), John Ford.
- Late 2021: Banks freeze suspicious accounts and report unusual activities to the ATO.
- April 2022: Launch of Operation Protego.
- May 2022: ATO warns against fake businesses and fraudulent ABN applications, with around $850 million paid out in potentially fraudulent claims.
- June 2022: ATO curtails fraudulent claims, rejecting $1.7 billion in claims and initiating coordinated actions across various locations.
- July 2022: ATO conducts search warrants for suspected offenders.
- December 2022: ATO estimates fraudulent rejected claims at $2.5 billion.
- February 2023: Warrants executed against individuals promoting the fraud on social media.
- August 2023: ATO updates fraudulent rejected claims tally to $2.7 billion.
Current Status: $2.7 billion in fraudulent claims halted, $1.7 billion in fraudulent payments made, with around $66 million recovered by June 30, 2022. An additional $700 million in liabilities, including approximately $300 million in penalties, raised in 2023-24.
A Word of Advice to Small Business Owners
In the face of such fraudulent schemes, it’s crucial for small business owners to remain vigilant and informed. Always remember that engaging in such activities not only jeopardizes your financial stability but can also result in severe legal consequences.
To protect yourself and your business:
- Stay Informed: Regularly update yourself on the latest scams and fraudulent schemes circulating on social media platforms. Knowledge is your first line of defense.
- Report Suspicious Activities: If you come across any suspicious activities or schemes, report them to the ATO immediately. Your proactive stance can help curb the spread of such frauds.
- Seek Professional Advice: Before making any financial moves or tax claims, consult with a professional accountant or tax advisor to ensure compliance with the law.
- Educate Your Network: Share information about such scams with your business network to create a community that is aware and prepared to counter such fraudulent activities.
- Secure Your Personal Information: Be cautious about sharing personal information, including your myGov details, to prevent identity theft and fraudulent claims in your name.
Remember, maintaining ethical business practices is not only a legal requirement but also a cornerstone for building a trustworthy and sustainable business. Stay safe, stay informed, and steer clear of scams.