As Tax Day Approaches, Watch Out For Phone Scammers

Apr 11, 2018
Originally published on April 11, 2018 2:24 pm

It's not every day that the Pennsylvania State Police call to say they have a warrant out for your arrest. But that's exactly what happened to me in late March.

At least, that's what the caller said was happening.

The voice on the other end of the line rattled off information about me — my full name, my email address, where I went to college, when I graduated — and told me I owed the IRS more than $7,000 for not paying taxes on a college scholarship.

When I sounded incredulous, he told me to look up the number that appeared on my caller ID as verification. It was, in fact, the number of the Pennsylvania State Police.

Then he told me I could make the whole thing go away by buying Apple gift cards and reading him the gift card number over the phone. He tried to convince me that the Apple store and my local grocery chain were "government certified locations," and gift cards from those places were the equivalent of government bonds.

That's when I realized it was a scam.

Not everyone is lucky enough to catch on right away. The IRS estimates that more than $65 million has been lost to phone tax scammers in the past five years. It's most common during high tax season in March and April.

Michelle Albitz of Barto, Pa., fell victim to a scam last year. She was at work when she got the call.

"It said that this was the IRS, I owed money and if I didn't call back this number the local authorities would be after me," says Albitz.

The scammers threatened to call the police if Albitz hung up, so she stayed on the phone with them for hours. She took out a credit card cash advance for more than $10,000, bought as many gift cards as she could, and read the scammers the card numbers over the phone. She hasn't been able to pay down the debt.

"Right now if I wanted to get a loan I can't, because my credit right now isn't that great," she says, tearing up.

Albitz is one of more than 13,000 people in the U.S. who have fallen for a tax scam since 2013, according to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration. California has the highest number of victims and total dollars lost, with New York and Texas close behind.

Officials say the elderly, immigrants and young adults who don't have much experience with the tax system are the most vulnerable to these scams.

"A lot of people are afraid of the IRS, and so when you hear those words when someone calls, I think it intimidates a lot of folks on the receiving end of the phone call," says Ed Wirth, a special agent on the criminal investigation division at the IRS.

Wirth says phone scams can be spotted because the calls happen without warning, and the request is presented as urgent. Often scammers will threaten arrest or deportation. Some say to make the problem go away they need personal information, like your bank account number or your Social Security number. But more often, as in my case and Michelle Albitz's, they just ask for money.

Con artists can make any phone number appear on your caller ID, which is how they made it look like they were calling me from the state police. They can even make it look like they're calling from a real IRS office. That can make these scams even harder to identify.

Wirth says people need to remember one simple rule:

"If you have not received communication from us via the U.S. mail, we're not going to be calling you," he says.

He urges people to not let fear of the tax man make them the next victim of a tax scam.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NOEL KING, HOST:

All right. The IRS estimates that taxpayers have lost more than $65 million because of phone scams related to taxes. And, as you might expect, these scams are most common during tax season. Reporter Paige Pfleger got a firsthand look at the scams when her phone rang.

PAIGE PFLEGER, BYLINE: The voice on the other end of the line said he was calling from the Pennsylvania State Police. He rattled off some information about me - my full name, my email address, where I went to college, when I graduated and told me the IRS had a warrant out for my arrest for not paying taxes on my college scholarship. I told him the whole thing sounded fishy, and this was his response.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Can you see my phone number, ma'am, appearing on your cellphone right now?

PFLEGER: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Go and just type in the whole number online and see which office and which department you're speaking to.

PFLEGER: I mean, I'm seeing that that's the Pennsylvania State Police number.

He then told me I could make the whole thing go away by buying Apple gift cards. That's when I realized it was a scam. But not everyone is so lucky.

MICHELLE ALBITZ: If I wanted to get a loan I can't because my credit right now is not that great.

PFLEGER: That's Michelle Albitz of Barto, Pa. She got a credit card cash advance for more than $10,000 last year when she fell victim to a tax scam, and she hasn't been able to pay all of that money back. She got the call while she was at work.

ALBITZ: And it said this was the IRS, I owed money, and if I did not call back this number, the local authorities would be after me.

PFLEGER: Albitz is one of more than 13,000 people in the U.S. who has fallen for a tax scam in the last five years, according to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration. California has the highest number of victims and total dollars lost, and New York and Texas are close behind.

ED WIRTH: A lot of people are afraid of the IRS. And so when you hear those words when someone calls, I think it intimidates a lot of folks on the receiving end of the phone call.

PFLEGER: That's Ed Wirth, a special agent with the criminal investigation division at the IRS. He says that phone scams can be spotted because they come out of nowhere, and the request will seem really urgent, like with my scammer.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: So do you want to resolve the matter? This would be right now, right away.

PFLEGER: Often, they'll threaten legal action like arrest or deportation. And they say to make the problem go away, they need personal information or money. My scammer was trying to convince me that a gift card from the Apple store or a grocery store chain was considered a government bond.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: If you want to resolve the matter, ma'am, you have to go to the government-certified store, the government-certified location. And you have to purchase federal bond for the amount of $7,980.

PFLEGER: Con artists can make any number appear on your caller ID, which is how they made it look like they were calling me from the state police number and how they can even make it look like they're calling from the real IRS number. That can make these scams confusing. But Ed Wirth from the IRS says people just need to remember one simple rule.

WIRTH: If you have not received communication from us via the U.S. mail, we're not going to be calling you.

PFLEGER: He urges people not to let fear of the tax man make you the next victim of a tax scam. For NPR News, I'm Paige Pfleger. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.