IRS scam calls and threats heat up this summer
A guy with a digitized voice called my home the other day and said his name was Steve Martin. Or that's what he seemed to say.
He claimed he was calling with an enforcement action executed by the U.S. Treasury.
"I advise you to cooperate," Steve Martin said. "Help us to help you."
He did not call me a "wild and crazy girl," so I am confident that this voice was not Steve Martin, the actor, comedian and author. No way.
Yes, the IRS-impersonation collection calls are filling up the landlines once again. I've heard from readers in Detroit, Florida, Texas and elsewhere who told me that they started getting these calls again in July.
And there's a new twist: The con artists aren't just dialing for dollars. The crooks now could be mailing or faxing falsified forms, too, according to the Internal Revenue Service.
"Taxpayers need to know that scammers have started sending fake documents to trick people into sending money or 'verifying' their personal information," said Luis D. Garcia, an IRS spokesman in Detroit.
If you verify information, that data can then be used to commit tax refund fraud and file a fake tax return using your name and ID.
The Federal Trade Commission put out a consumer notice in mid-July saying that scammers are out there impersonating the authorities — the IRS, the U.S. Treasury, local police, the Federal Trade Commission.
If they claim to be from the FTC, they might say they're calling to help you recover money lost to a scammer. How nice, they want to help.
The local police in Beverly Hills, Mich., said numerous residents had received phone calls this summer from a recording stating that they will be called before a magistrate for money owed for federal income taxes.
"The recorded voice has an ethnic accent. Do not reply or return any messages that have been left of this nature," the police told residents in an alert.
For many of us, all those crazy calls are annoying, but we're not loading up cash on a prepaid money card or wiring money via Western Union. We get it. We're working and hauling kids to swim meets. We're not dealing with oddball callers or falling for this IRS scam.
The problem, though, is some people do get caught and that's why the scammers keep calling.
"We have residents send money probably six to eight times a year," said Public Safety Lt. Michael Vargas in Beverly Hills. "The last case was around $6,000."
Meanwhile, police in Eastpointe, Mich., said one elderly resident who was scammed out of more than $8,000 in July.
Deputy Chief Eric Keiser in the Eastpointe Police Department said the caller claimed back taxes were owed to the U.S. Treasury and threatened that the person would be taken to jail if payment wasn't received immediately. The resident was first to mail prepaid gift cards to a Treasury address in Washington, D.C., but then the callers had the resident send a MoneyGram to a Wal-Mart in Florida.
"The Treasury will not send people out to arrest you for not paying your taxes," Keiser said. "You don't get calls out of nowhere from the Treasury."
Keiser said people should call their local police if they believe they're dealing with a suspicious call before sending money. Again, the Treasury isn't going to ask anyone to wire money to a Wal-Mart or send prepaid cards to Washington, D.C.
Nationwide, about 3,052 individuals fell for this scam and ended up paying $15.5 million, according to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration's report to Congress. That data is from Oct. 1, 2013, through March 9, 2015. So scammers could have picked up more than $5,000 per victim on average. But the highest loss reported by one person was $500,000.
Reports of the phone impersonation scam began in August 2013 but the scam has grown into the "largest, most pervasive impersonation scam in the history" of the Treasury Inspector General's office.
The agency noted that as of Feb. 28, the top five states by dollars lost by victims were California ($3.84 million), New York ($1.35 million), Texas ($795,884), Florida ($760,000) and Virginia ($648,363).
It's not just the IRS scam, of course, where the phone or computer can lead to trouble.
I spoke with a reader last week who told me he's spent up to $3,000 so far sending money, not to the IRS scammers, but to others pretending to be experts or officials from a computer company. He knows he's being ripped off, he said, but he's afraid of what could happen if he does not pay up.
The most recent caller demanded $199 to unlock his computer that appears to have been hit by ransomware. Experts advised him he's better off not paying it and getting a new computer with good security software and sticking to safe Internet usage.
What many of these scammers do, of course, is try to speak with authority. They even might have some information on you that makes them sound more legitimate, maybe the last four digits of your Social Security number.
And they often have caller ID set up to make it appear it's a legitimate IRS phone number when it is not.
A sure sign of fraud, though, is if the caller starts making aggressive threats and demands that you pay up immediately. Another sign of a scam: Someone asks for credit card or debit card numbers over the phone or threatens to have the local police or other law enforcement groups have you arrested for not paying up.
Sometimes, people fear that if they don't pay up, they'll owe even more money somehow. Or the elderly could fear losing their independence if they somehow end up in trouble with the IRS.
Nancy Willaford, who lives in San Antonio, told me that she received a scam call last spring in which the caller said she owed $3,598 in taxes for audited years from 2008 through 2013. If she didn't pay, the caller threatened her with a lawsuit and a fine of $30,000 plus five years in jail.
Willaford didn't pay because she knew it was a scam.
"My heart goes out to all the families who may fall for this scam," Willaford said.
She noted that the callers can be particularly abusive.
"These guys are brutal, ultimately threatening, rude and foul-mouthed," she said.
Once again, it's important to recognize that the IRS will not call you to demand immediate payment or tell you to put money on a prepaid debit card. The IRS will mail you a bill first if tax money is owed. But again, make sure to call the IRS before you pay anything. If you think you might owe taxes, call your tax preparer and the IRS at 800-829-1040. Or read more on the alerts at irs.gov.
If you do not believe you owe any taxes and think you're being scammed, you can report the incident with the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration at 800-366-4484 at the integrity hotline. Consumers also can file a complaint at ftc.gov. Add the words "IRS telephone scam" to the comments in your complaint.
Robocall technology increasingly is being used, like the call I received recently. And yes, some claim to have some regular sounding names, like Nicki Johnson, Steve Smith or even Steve Martin.
Best bet: Don't bother to call them back if they leave a message. Simply hit delete.