At a glance
Focused on GST fraud, the taskforce executed a series of warrants across Australia in recent months, and ultimately referred the details of 29,000 individuals to the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission for attempted fraud of more than A$1 billion, and potentially fraudulent payments up to of A$850 million.
Managing the risk of fraud
“We have zero tolerance to fraud. We hold a vast amount of customer information, which can be very attractive to fraudsters and criminals, and, unfortunately, sometimes they attempt to exploit this information for their own personal gain.
Despite having strong and safe systems, we have to deal with fraud attempts on a daily basis.
"Fraud is a very broad risk, and it can take on many different shapes and sizes.
"We target everything from small-scale fraud – for example, if an individual deliberately claims expenses that didn’t occur – right through to more complex fraud, including offshore organised criminals attempting multimillion-dollar fraud schemes.
“We have a very strong fraud and corruption control plan, and we also have very strong measures to respond, including investigations, referrals, prosecutions and recovery.
"But the tax profession has a fundamental role as well. It’s through their understanding of their client’s circumstances and the role that they have in providing tax services and advice.
This is really fundamental in helping taxpayers correctly meet their obligations and protecting situations where taxpayers are trying to do the wrong thing.”
What led to Operation Protego?
“The creation of the fake business and the lodgement of a fictitious activity statement to get a false refund is actually not new... What makes it different this time though is the size, scale and the rate of proliferation.
"From my perspective, it is unprecedented. But I think there’s two [more] factors that... make this particular fraud event different to others.
So, the first factor... is how social media channels – for example, TikTok and Facebook – have been used to promote the fraud.
“The [second] factor is the brazenness of some of the behaviours by those involved we’ve seen. Some of these people are really trying it on. They know what they’re doing is the wrong thing, they want the money, and they want it quickly.
"What really concerns us is that they’re not thinking about the consequences of what they’re doing.
They’re not thinking that the action they’re taking is criminal, which it actually is, and tax crime is not a victimless crime, either…We began to receive information from various sources and responded quickly and decisively.”
Tip of the iceberg
“We’re also working with state and territory law enforcement agencies, and this gives us ore boots on the ground. There is a real ripple effect here.
"Some of the participants involved are involved in other, more serious crimes. You often find that tax evasion and fraud are only the tip of the iceberg.
"We’ve already commenced criminal investigations into many participants, and there is the real potential that these people will get some jail time or face some serious financial penalties.
“There is a range of potential consequences those involved may face. At the heart of this, individuals involved will need to pay the money back to the ATO. Some individuals will also have to pay significant penalties, too.
"What is really saddening here is that many involved haven’t thought through the longer-term consequences of their actions.”
find out more
A group effort
“We recognised quite early that we couldn’t do this alone. We had to partner with other agencies and other bodies to help us address those that have been involved, but also to stop the further proliferation of this fraud event.
"And that has included having very strong partner partnerships with social media platforms, but also financial institutions as well. This has been incredibly important in our response.
“Social media platforms have been keen to remove content from their platforms and to protect their users from consuming potentially fraudulent content as well. We have worked strongly with financial institutions in our response, too, and they have been great partners.
“The tax profession and the broader community are also partners with us in our response. So, people who are concerned about fraud can always report that to the ATO and we will continue to educate people on the signs to watch out for with simple messages, such as the ATO does not offer loans.”