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by Steve Baker
Have you received a call from a bogus IRS agent theatening imminent legal action or that they are sending a squad car to arrest you? If you are one of the rare people that has not yet gotten one of these calls, just hold on. The Federal Trade Commission has received more complaints about these types of calls in the last year than any other subject. I received two of them myself in the last few days. Most of you have too. It is time to spread the word to family, friends, and anyone else you communicate about. Here a few tips about how these work and how to report them.
How do these calls work? These calls now work in two ways. First, you may receive a call from someone claiming to be with the IRS. They assert that you failed to pay a correct amount in taxes for a previous year. Then they demand immediate payment. The demand is coupled with a threat. Usually people are told that they will be arrested in the next couple of hours. Others threaten a costly lawsuit and imminent action by the IRS to seize assets. To avert this consumers are told to pay immediately. Charges are typically $2000 or so.
Second, many of these calls are now coming in the form of robocalls. If you don’t answer the call they will leave a voicemail message providing a call back number. The FTC has posted one of these calls, where consumers are told that this is their “final notice,” and the IRS is filing suit against them. You can listen to one here. Note that you cannot trust the area codes or numbers displayed from these calls. They often say they are from area code 202 (Washington, DC) but they really are not. Do not trust your caller ID on this.
Recent law enforcement action, separately, by US and India law enforcement have greatly reduced the numbers of these calls. Be aware, however, that this problem is unlikely to go away. Traditionally midlevel managers and sales people simply move to smaller operations, which are harder to find, and continue the fraud.
Why do people pay? Everyone has heard about the things that the IRS can do to those who don’t pay their taxes, and the threats of arrest are often taken seriously. Moreover, there are doubtless some people that really do owe taxes or have other tax problems. Here is a recent story on the devastating effect this fraud had on one victim:
How do people pay? Consumers are told they must pay immediately or face arrest or a lawsuit. Often consumers are told to go to Western Union or MoneyGram to send the money, or to pay cash to buy a Green Dot MoneyPak card. More recently consumers have been told to go to an Apple store and buy I-tune gift cards and, after they have, to read the numbers from the gift card over the phone to the supposed IRS agent. I am not aware of anyone sending money directly to India. Thus the money has to go to someone in the U.S. who receives the money and then sends it off overseas. One recent news report asserts that when the fraudsters have the numbers on the gift card they can simply load the money onto a debit card.
How many people have been ripped off? To date, over 5700 victims have purportedly paid more than $31 million to these criminals. And there are undoubtedly many more victims who have not reported their losses.
Is this just in the United States? This seems to now be a worldwide problem. Both Canada and Australia have recently issued warnings about the same fraud hitting their citizens. I would be extremely surprised if it is not hitting other countries as well.
Who is behind these? We believe most of these calls are coming from India. Several years ago the FTC brought cases against telemarketers from India used the same M.O., calling people claiming the consumer owed a debt and were about to be immediately arrested or sued. These calls often impersonated police or law firms.
American Credit Crunchers/Thaker
Broadway Global Masters
Kirit Patel, the defendant in the second case, was later prosecuted:
In both cases the FTC sued the individuals in the U.S. receiving the money. In the earlier FTC cases consumers paid by credit card. Other than changing the payment method from credit cards to a money transfer service or I-Tune card, these cases are identical to what is happening today.
Here is a very good news piece, where the reporters actually traveled to the source of the calls in Ahmedabad, India
Who investigates this fraud?
The U.S. Treasury’s Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) is working hard on this issue. Here is their congressional testimony on this subject from April 2016.
Are the same people running the other IRS scams? There has also been a massive increase in frauds filing bogus tax returns in someone else’s name. These seem to be run by a completely different group of fraudsters.
Prosecutions of this fraud. There have been several to date, and more are surely coming.
Two U.S. based people arrested and charged:
Arrests in Scott’s Valley, California.
Five arrested in Miami:
For the very first time law enforcement in India has taken action, with police in Thane, India (a suburb of Mumbai) arresting 70 people at a call center in early October 2016. Over 700 people were working there. This case is being closely followed by news media in India. Here is a recent article from India.
In addition, in October 2016 the Justice Department announced criminal charges against 56 people in the US and against five call centers in India. Here is the Wall Street Journal story:
This involved not only the IRS scams, but also calls to recent immigrants pretending to be Customs officers who threatened to deport them, bogus debt collection calls involving threats of arrest, and callers claiming to be able to offer a free government grant – for a fee.
Many of those arrested in the US were picking up the money from victims; often through Western Union, MoneyGram, and Green Dot cards.
Each of these major actions seem to have been developed separately, but law enforcement in the U.S. and India are now coordinating. There may be additional cases in both countries.
The BBB reports that there has been a dramatic drop in the number of bogus IRS calls being made. However, do not expect this fraud to disappear. When there is a large enforcement effort midlevel managers at the frauds simply set up their own (smaller, well hidden) operations to continue the fraud.
How do I Know if a call is really from the IRS?
• The IRS stresses that it never makes telephone calls to collect taxes
• The IRS never takes payment through Western Union, MoneyGram, stored value cards or gift cards.
• Call the IRS to check it out at: IRS at 800-829-1040
• Do an internet search of the phone number that called you. You may find other people that have been victimized with the same phone number.
Where can I complain?
TIGTA takes the lead on this particular fraud. Here is their online complaint form:
Consumers can also complain to the Federal Trade Commission, especially about illegal robocalls. or call 877-FTC-Help.
And if consumers paid by Western Union, MoneyGram, Green Dot or a gift card they should also report directly to those companies. Western Union and MoneyGram know where the money was actually picked up and what ID was used to do so. They add that into the FTC’s Consumer Sentinel database, making it available to law enforcement agencies.
Western Union 1-800-448-1492;
Green Dot. 1-866-795-7597
October 4, 2016; updated 12/6/2016
Steve recently retired as Director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Midwest Region in Chicago. He has worked directly on consumer fraud issues for over thirty years, and regularly worked with foreign counterparts. Steve serves on the Board of Directors of the International Better Business Bureau.