An alert AARP member recently got a call from an “IRS agent” and right away sensed something was phony. The agent left a voice mail message saying back taxes were owed and told the man to call back right away.
The AARP member contacted me instead, and I returned the call, posing as him.
The supposed IRS agent told me that my only hope to avoid jail was to pay fines and back taxes before the police came knocking at my door. He also said there might be a way I could stay out of the slammer but only if I acted quickly.
For the next 10 minutes, he alternated between threats of pending arrest and hopes for salvation. Finally, he directed me to a local market where I could purchase several thousand dollars worth of Green Dot MoneyPaks — a way to transfer cash to another person instantly by just giving him or her a secret code number. Having received my instructions, I promised to call back when I’d completed my mission. I didn’t, of course, because I knew right away this was a scam.
The Federal Trade Commission reports that, from 2013 to 2014, complaints about the “IRS Scam” increased 20-fold, with more than 54,000 Americans being targeted in 2014. Fraudsters often target immigrants or older Americans less likely to have the knowledge or support system that would keep them from falling into the trap. As in my case, after stoking the fires of fear, the bogus agent turns helpful, providing a solution that involves sending cash in a quick and untraceable way.
Unfortunately, IRS scammers often thwart tracking efforts by operating from overseas, using relayed calls and by showing bogus caller IDs. The display on my phone had actually read “IRS GOV.”
See also: Phony phone numbers can cost you money
Of course, most of us wouldn’t fall for a foreign scammer’s heavily accented delivery and unlikely story, but some always do. And the prospect of pending arrest might rattle even the coolest of us.
Scammers often bolt at the first sign of discovery: When I called my scammer back and identified myself as a journalist, he gave me a terse response and hung up.
Here’s what you should do if you receive such a call:
• Assume it’s a scam. The IRS doesn’t call people about back taxes; it’ll send you a notice by mail. If you think you might actually have unpaid taxes, call the IRS at 800-829-1040.
• Hang up the phone. Do not engage the caller in any way. Any information you provide may just mark you for more bogus calls.
• Report the incident. If you are contacted by phone, report the incident to the U.S. Treasury inspector general for tax administration at 800-366-4484. If contacted by email, forward the message directly to the IRS at email@example.com.
• Educate others. Talk to the vulnerable people in your life about the scam.
Finally, stay abreast of con artists’ latest tricks and find out how to protect yourself against fraud by going to the AARP Fraud Watch Network.
Consumer advocate Ron Burley writes the On Your Side column for AARP and is the author of Unscrewed: The Consumer's Guide to Getting What You Paid For. Got a complaint? Tell your consumer woes to Ron at AARP On Your Side.
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