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06 Jul 2015

By John Alati, Federal AMA Senior Industrial and Legal Adviser

Anyone with an email address has probably at some point received an unsolicited offer, often from someone claiming to be in Africa, to unlock a multi-million dollar reward simply by providing their bank account details.

It is a well-known and fairly transparent scam that has been tried virtually from the moment the internet came into existence.

But the “art” of scamming has evolved, and scammers are using increasingly sophisticated ruses and techniques to bully or trick people out of their money.

The AMA is constantly on alert to scams and dubious business practices that target small businesses – especially doctors.

Doctors are very busy and may have little time to devote to invoices and requests for payment, particularly for amounts that appear small. However, it is worth taking the time to reflect and check on any business offer or ‘invoice’ that seems dubious. Don’t just pay it regardless of how demanding or ‘official’ it appears.

With so much personal, professional and business information available on the internet it is not hard for scammers to trawl websites, aggregate information and present it in official looking correspondence. There may be information available about you and your business on the internet that you did not know is publicly available.

Some of the more well-known scams that have targeted medical practices include:

Directory listings

For example, the ‘Australasian Health Professionals Directory’ – based overseas, it bills medical practices for a listing on its website. Many practices were approached with the offer of a free listing in the directory, but the fine print of the contract showed that the listing in fact costs $1300 a year for a minimum of three years, and would continue for a further year if not cancelled.

Honour societies

Some honour societies are well known and it may suit some people to respond positively to an invitation to join them. However, some are simply scams which will start you on some type of ‘free’ membership, then try to hard sell you, flatter you or scam you into purchasing a high level, very expensive membership, trying to convince you it is appropriate for your professional and personal status. Think very carefully about whether these societies are legitimate and can offer you anything of value.

In recent months, a number of other scams have emerged.

Trademark renewal scam

Essentially a directory listing scam, this dubious practice involves correspondence suggesting that a business trademark need to be renewed. The information these scammers obtain is publicly available on the IP Australia website. Renewal is normally done through IP Australia: http://www.ipaustralia.gov.au/, but a number of overseas-based entities offer a ‘trademark listing’ service which is most likely to be worthless to Australian businesses. IP Australia has a list of ‘unsolicited IP services’ on its website: http://www.ipaustralia.gov.au/ip-infringement/unsolicited-ip-services/.

Arrest scam

In April we were contacted by the Australian Crime Commission (ACC) and advised of a scam targeting doctors. It involves persons calling doctors, purporting to be a an ‘officer’, ‘agent’ or ‘sergeant’ from the ACC, stating that there was an outstanding warrant for the doctor’s arrest and that she or he had to pay money to the caller or the police would attend shortly to arrest them. Of course, this was a scam.

Tax debt scam

We have not had specific information about this scam targeting doctors but it does target individuals and businesses, so it could affect doctors. This scam is similar to the ACC scam above. It involves people calling purporting to be from the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) attempting to force people to pay a fake tax debt over the phone and threatening arrest if they don't comply. It seems the callers can be very aggressive. This scam may be particularly menacing for those who believe they may legitimately owe money to the ATO. The ATO does make contact with people by phone in some circumstances, but staff would always provide their name and affiliation. ATO staff do not threaten jail or arrest if people do not pay when contacted. The ATO does not demand that people load money onto a prepay card at the post office. If you have doubts, you can confirm the name and title of the caller and call the ATO switchboard to speak with that person.

Some scammers will simply take your money and run, and you’ll never hear from them again. In order to stay just within the law some will provide a dubious service or even a product but it will be of little or no value. Websites that create lists are a classic example of this. This makes it very difficult to challenge them as their practices may be legal in the sense that you are getting something for your money, but they are far from ethical.

Often these services are based overseas, so pursuing legal rights against them would be a very difficult, expensive and probably futile exercise. Some of the risks involved in being the victim of a scam or dubious business practice include:

•             expending money, sometimes significant sums of money on nothing of value;

•             great stress and time involved in dealing with the consequences of a scam;

•             giving your personal information to overseas entities that will not adhere to Australian     privacy laws;

•             identity theft; and

•             ongoing uncertainty about what information scammers have about you.

How to spot a scam

There are several behaviours and characteristics that should put you on alert for a possible scam, including:

  • People who ‘cold call’, making contact with you out of the blue to sell you something or demand payment. This form of contact is particularly risky.
  • People who try to pressure you into signing now – using lines such as ‘this offer is only available today’. High pressure selling may indicate a scam.
  • People who insist that someone in your practice has previously authorized a particular purchase. This is a classic scam.
  • Companies based overseas with no local address or agent, or Australian businesses with no street address. This is often a sign that a business does not want to be traced. However, be careful as there are services available in Australian capital cities which will provide a street address for the purposes of correspondence, but which are little more than a mail processing centre and not an actual business address.
  • Businesses that try to make out that you have ‘won’ something or have been ‘chosen’.
  • People who tell you that you should sign a document, but ‘it isn’t binding’. If anyone wants you to sign something, it is usually intended to be binding.
  • Pre-populated forms requesting payment for something that you were not expecting. Check these carefully.
  • Fine print on a form that really is too fine to read. Enlarge it on a photocopier and read it! You might be shocked at what you see.
  • Scammers usually want your signature on a piece of paper. Do not be rushed into signing anything. Beware of documents that seem to be asking you to simply sign to confirm that your name and address details are correct. There may be more to it and you may be committing to something you did not realise.
  • Many dubious agreements will not use a dollar sign ($) anywhere on the document because this is what our eyes tend to scan for. Instead they use the term ‘AUD’ which is less likely to be picked up with a quick scan.

Some ways to minimise the risk of being scammed:

  • Do not give your credit card or bank account details to any person unless you are absolutely sure they are legitimate.
  • Train your staff to recognize problems and potential scams. It is often junior staff that scammers target.
  • Make sure you have procedures in place to clarify who can sign for purchases or any document on behalf of the practice.
  • Have salespeople put everything to you in writing. If they are legitimate they will have no problem setting out their proposition in an email. 
  • You may find it helpful to refuse cold calls, just like you can refuse junk mail. Of course, make sure you are not hanging up on patients.
  • Return any unsolicited goods unopened, to the sender. Note the time and date of doing so. Take a photograph of the goods. Keep copies of any correspondence that scammers send you.
  • Check a company’s ABN or ACN on the ASIC website. This is not a guarantee of legitimacy but it means a company is registered in Australia and may at least be traceable.
  • Be careful of scammers who send you a document then make a follow up phone call. Regardless of what you say to them on the phone, they may use the contact to ‘confirm an order’, especially if they manage to get the name of someone in your practice. Remember, scammers have no hesitation in lying about what was said over the phone.
  • If you are thinking of dealing with a company that you have not previously dealt with, check with other practices or colleagues in your area to see if they have dealt with the company in question, and what their experience has been.
  • Regularly check the Scamwatch website: http://www.scamwatch.gov.au/content/index.phtml/tag/SmallBusinessScams
  • Never agree to anything on the spot. Always take time to consider your options, do some research and make a calm, considered decision as to whether the product or service on offer is worth the price, or indeed anything at all. You can also ask the caller where they obtained your information, but don’t expect a straight answer.

The AMA is always interested in hearing about scams, rip-offs and other dubious business practices, and will always alert members when we become aware of them. If you have any queries or personal experiences, please contact the AMA.


Published: 06 Jul 2015