Timothy P. Camus capped a long career in federal law enforcement as the tip of the spear in the battle against so-called IRS impersonators.
They’re the crooks who call and pose as Internal Revenue Service (IRS) agents: liars who tell people they owe back taxes, and extortionists who order them to pony up fast or they’ll be arrested.
Often they target older Americans, even phoning people in nursing homes, says Camus, who makes his contempt for such offenders plain.
“They’re gutless. Just horrible human beings,” he says. “I don’t know how they sleep at night.”
Camus, 56, who retired from the U.S. Department of the Treasury at the end of 2017, says the highest loss he saw involved a victim who, over time, gave scammers more than a half-million dollars.
Another victim paid a higher price, so distraught that he killed himself once he realized he’d been had.
Camus remembers another victim, too: a South Florida man in his 70s so agitated by demands for payment for a phony tax bill that he crashed his car while driving to a Walmart to buy prepaid debit cards for the scammers. The victim abandoned the wreck and made the rest of the trip on foot.
Camus worked for more than 25 years in the office of the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, or TIGTA. He rose to become its top investigator, and beginning in the fall of 2013 he and his team focused on a big jump in cases involving IRS impersonators.
Altogether, 15,376 people have reported to TIGTA losing more than $74.8 million to IRS impersonators since the cases were tracked beginning Oct. 1, 2013, agency spokesman David Barnes says.
The figures, current through mid-March, reflect an average loss of more than $4,800. The largest number of victims are in California, New York, Texas, Illinois and New Jersey, according to a TIGTA report last fall.
Significantly higher were the number of complaints about suspicious calls from IRS impersonators: the agency received 2.5 million reports from the fall of 2013 through mid-March, Barnes says.
According to Camus, there’s an easy solution when, out of the blue, someone pretending to be an IRS employee calls: Hang up. As a rule, the IRS won’t call taxpayers saying they owe taxes without first sending a bill in the mail.
Even government officials, agents get spam calls
Members of Congress, top IRS officials and FBI and Secret Service agents have gotten the nuisance calls — and so has Camus. “You don’t realize, we’ve been investigating you very strenuously,” he retorted to one bad actor. “And your day will come.”
Camus, who worked near the White House, had a badge and a gun and, as deputy inspector general for investigations, oversaw about 360 employees in the D.C. area and 42 outlying offices in the U.S. Most were special agents; others were support staff. His former agency acts as the internal affairs unit for the Department of the Treasury, policing employee misconduct, pursuing tax-related identity theft cases and going after scammers, often overseas, who pretend they work for the tax man and assert people have a debt that needs to be settled pronto. The threats vary, but victims are warned if they don’t pay, they’ll be taken into custody, lose their driver’s licenses, face deportation or suffer some other sanction.
Years ago, Camus says, scammers operated on a smaller scale, because it cost them money to rent an office, set up phone lines and pay people to make calls manually and process incoming checks and money orders. New technology, including VoIP (Voice over the Internet Protocol) calling and robocalls, were game changers for crooks, who began demanding payments in forms harder to trace. They even asked for iTunes gift cards. “You just blast out a gazillion robocalls and you see if you get anybody to call you back,” Camus says.
At peak, TIGTA had reports of as many as 40,000 suspicious calls a week, he says. Since many more go unreported, the actual weekly number could have been 100,000, Camus says.
"Advise and disrupt” is the game plan
Camus and colleagues devised an “advise and disrupt” strategy. One element was fighting fire with fire: Using robocalls, they began issuing prerecorded cease-and-desist orders by contacting phone numbers reportedly used by scammers. The orders say, in part, that it’s illegal to impersonate U.S. government officials. Camus and his team also worked with telecom firms to take offline the phone numbers of suspected scammers.
Through mid-March, 190,553 cease-and-desist orders have been issued and 1,360 phone numbers shut down, says Barnes, the TIGTA spokesman.
While the problem hasn’t gone away, Camus says authorities made strides with major enforcement actions in 2016 and 2018 involving indictments against more than 70 people and 10 call centers in India. Many defendants were U.S.-based coconspirators who liquidated and laundered the proceeds of the impersonation scams.
In a report last fall, TIGTA said more than 130 people had been charged in federal court since 2013 for taking part in IRS impersonation scams. Sixty-four of them had been sentenced to U.S. prisons by last Sept. 30, and the terms collectively surpassed 319 years.
Scammers traditionally target older Americans, Camus says, since they tend to have nest eggs and if conned into believing they owe taxes, want to do the right thing. Criminals also reason that if they get caught, older people would be less-than-stellar witnesses, he says.
Today IRS impersonation scams have tapered off, according to Camus, who, when the agency was heavily besieged by complaints, told his staff to keep older adults top of mind.
“I’d always say, ‘Listen, I know this is hard. I know you are tired. But if you protect just one person from losing their life savings, and their ability to lead a dignified life, isn’t that worth it?’ ”
Camus says that if you have gotten an IRS impersonation call, but have not lost money, report it through the TIGTA website, tigta.gov; if you have lost money, call its hotline, 800-366-4484.