The IRS tax stick-up scam assault, where fraudsters convince tax payers to pay a debt immediately or face jail time, started two years ago and has continued relentlessly. Michigan resident Leslie Rai has been one of the millions targeted by scammers trying to bilk consumers out of thousands of dollars each.
“We were probably part of the first wave of phone calls,” Rai recalls. “When they first called, they left a message and sounded very official. The caller said we were delinquent on our tax return and rattled off a case number. They said we had to pay our debt or face criminal charges --initially it was very jarring and I was worried.”
After the initial shock wore off, Rai reconsidered her concern and started connecting the twisted dots. “Of course, the first thing I did was yell at my husband, because he handles our taxes,” she laughs. “But then I realized someone was trying to scam us by using an official title and threatening police action. Then I got angry.”
Rai is far from alone.
"This is the largest scam of its kind that we have ever seen," said J. Russell George, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration in a recent release. TIGTA has received over 20,000 reports with over $1 million collectively paid as a result of the scam. The callers can also be aggressive when it comes to targeting individuals in a repeated manner.
Since that initial call, Rai estimates the scammers have called her 50 times. “They always call from a different, untraceable number so I can’t just turn in the phone number," she says. "At one point, I reached out to a government official from Sacramento California who told me not to give them any money, but we haven’t contacted the FTC or IRS--we know it's a scam and aren’t sure if reporting it will make any difference.”
As for characteristics to look out for, be wary of heavy accents and ridiculous titles.
“One guy called us with a very heavy accent who said his name was John Smith, chief investigator of the investigative office of the Bureau of Investigations,” Rai says. “I only remember that call, because it sounded so preposterous.”
Rai adds that while she was more annoyed that the IRS scammers kept calling her, what was most disturbing is that eventually they began calling her by name. “I felt more violated when they started to use my name,” she says. “Again, we were probably part of that first wave, and coincidentally, our calls started following the Target breach. I have no idea how much information they have on us or when the calls will eventually stop--hopefully soon.”
What To Do If You Are Called
Rai says after a dozen or more calls she would talk back to the caller, telling them she knew they were scam artists.
A spokesperson from the Federal Trade Commission advises callers to resist the urge to engage.
“Don’t provide any personal information, and don’t engage with the caller, unless you can get the caller’s name so you can report their name and number to the Treasury Department inspector general for tax administration,” the FTC spokesperson says. “You can also file a complaint with the FTC.”
“A great message is, The IRS does not call or email,” the FTC spokesperson adds. “If you get a call from someone who claims they’re from the IRS, hang up. And ignore any such emails, regardless of how official it may look.”
For consumers who don’t hang up immediately, “Don’t be fooled if someone has part or all of your Social Security number, or gives their ‘badge’ number,” the FTC says.
The activity of calling people under the guise of an official department is considered to be an ongoing scam called “phishing.”
“Phony emails are most likely ‘phishing’ attempts to get your personal information, like user names and passwords,” the FTC says. “Don’t respond to such email or click on any attachments. Instead, you should forward it to email@example.com, then delete it.”
Should You Worry About Filing Online?
Millions of Americans file taxes online and may be concerned that thieves can capture their data during transmission. Popular accounting firm H&R Block says security is taken very seriously and the firm takes every step to protect filer’s information.
“H&R Block has developed the Tax Identity Shield (SM) to help better protect you from becoming a victim of tax identity theft,” says Gene King, director of corporate communications. “Tax Identity Shield (SM) offers unique protection that provides you with tools that give you confidence knowing you are taking the right steps to reduce your risk of tax identity theft.”
“It is important for taxpayers to know that the IRS will not be calling them to discuss an unpaid debt or a tax return issue," King adds. "The IRS typically corresponds via the mail. In addition, clients should not provide any personal data over the phone. In addition, only use trusted web sites that are secure.”
A spokesperson from Intuit, Inc., provider of Turbo Tax says online security is one of the company’s highest priorities. “Reflecting our efforts over the past few years, for tax year 2015, TurboTax has implemented enhanced security measures to further strengthen customer identity authentication and notification,” the spokesperson said.
These measures include expanded multi-factor authentication, Touch ID technology, soft token technology and increased security features for account recovery. The tax software has also been enhanced to include login and device history, real time notifications and enhanced data science capabilities.
With regard to wrangling fraud, the Intuit spokesperson adds, “I’d suggest you contact IRS on this, as they’re certainly working to get the word out to taxpayers about phone scams and tax fraud. On November 19, the IRS kicked off a consumer education and awareness campaign to help combat tax fraud.”