Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Don't let the impostors win -- Aug. 16, 2018 column


You’ve probably gotten calls like this. Someone claiming to be from the Internal Revenue Service left me several urgent voicemails, threatening legal action if I didn’t call back right away.  

I pay my taxes, so I didn’t call. Sadly, many people fall for the scam.

More than 15,000 people – many of them elderly and immigrants -- lost “hundreds of millions” of dollars from 2012 to 2016 to impostors who claimed to be IRS or immigration officials, according to the Justice Department. The con artists also misused the personal information of more than 50,000 people.

But here’s the good news. The department, working with many other federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, put some of the perps behind bars.  

Two dozen crooks around the country each have been sentenced up to 20 years in prison. The court also ordered millions of dollars in their assets seized.

In addition, 32 individuals and five call centers in India were indicted on conspiracy, wire fraud and money laundering charges.

The case represents “the first-ever, large scale, multi-jurisdiction prosecution targeting the India call center scam industry,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said July 20 when he announced the sentences.

Details of the complex scheme came to light in statements by the defendants during plea deals. The call centers in India relied on a network of runners in this country to liquidate and launder the payments.

The good guys finally won, but the wheels of justice turn slowly. Charges were first brought in October 2016.

And, while it’s heartening to know one scam was scotched, others abound.
Fraud complaints of “impostor scams, many involving phony debts to the IRS or other agencies,” continued to grow last year, the Consumer Federation of America reported July 30 in its 2017 survey of consumer complaints.

For example, an Arkansas woman who received emails and text messages saying she owed the IRS complied with the demands and sent wire transfers totaling $170,000 to banks in China and a bank account in Texas.

The Arkansas Attorney General’s Office was able to get some of her money back – but the refund amounted to only $23,000.

The IRS scam takes place all year, not just during tax season, and con artists are nothing if not inventive. They program their computers to display real IRS Taxpayer Assistance Center phone numbers, so the number shows up on the taxpayer’s Caller ID, the IRS warned in April.

If the taxpayer questions the demands, the crook tells them to hang up and check the number on IRS.gov. Then he calls back and, able to “spoof” the real number, tricks the victim who has verified it.

To be clear, the IRS does not initiate contact with a call, email or text, nor does it demand immediate payment with a prepaid debit card, iTunes or Google Play gift card or wire transfer.

The IRS typically mails a letter or notice through the U.S. Postal Service, and the taxpayer has the right to question or appeal it.

The IRS does not threaten to take away your driver’s or business license, or have you arrested or deported.  

Impostor scams are not confined to federal offices. Crooks spoof numbers for local and State Police, Department of Motor Vehicles and other agencies, demanding payments for fines for missed court dates, skipped jury duty and other infractions.  

Scams threatening to shut off utilities are also on the rise, the Consumer Federation said.

A woman in Fairfax County, Va., received a call one Saturday from the electric company, saying her bill was overdue and her service would be disconnected if she didn’t pay right away, the federation’s report said.

She knew she’d already paid, so she reported the call to the Fairfax County Department of Cable and Consumer Services. The agency discovered the electric company doesn’t make calls on Saturdays or from the phone number used.

The woman was smart to hang up before she became a victim. If someone calls, claiming to be from the IRS or other agencies, don’t panic and don’t send money. Check first.

Learn more and report the IRS scam at Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration.

Don’t let the scammers win.

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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