The man who left the no-nonsense message on my answering service identified himself as an Internal Revenue Service agent. He said I would be served with a warrant for fraud unless I immediately called him back and made arrangements for payment due. I jotted down the number, which had a Virginia area code, and advanced to the next message. Another man, less threatening, also said he was with the IRS. Same demand, similar phone number.
What was going on?
I called Raphael Tulino, IRS spokesman for the Bay Area, and he confirmed what I'd suspected. The calls were scams -- sophisticated shakedowns intended to terrify whomever answers the phone.
"I can't tell you how many reporters have gotten this kind of call and called me," he said. "I've heard from TV, radio and print guys, one after another, over the last few months."
Tulino said this hoax is like dozens of other telephone con jobs, only more nefarious, because mention of the IRS has a way setting people on edge. They first started catching his attention in 2013.
"I've heard calls that threaten deportation, revocation of business licenses and anything else they can do to make it sound so urgent that the receiver of the call panics and responds to whatever they ask."
The victim is typically told to make payment through a prepaid debit card -- an instrument readily available at discount and drugstores that enables electronic money transfers through the use of a serial number. So why doesn't the federal government investigate and prosecute these crooks? The answer is, it does, but it's not as easy as it sounds. Eliot Ness had a simpler time bringing down Al Capone.
"The investigation part of it comes from the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA)," Tulino said, but added that modern technological skills have made arrests frustratingly difficult. Not everything about technology is good.
"As we understand it, these calls are coming from around the world. The bad part is scammers can use technology to mimic call site backgrounds or spoof (false) caller IDs," he said. They use fake names, frequently change their phone numbers and often base their operations in faraway lands.
One successful prosecution sheds some light: TIGTA reports that Dorothy John and Sohail Sheikh were convicted this year in a Florida district court for participating in a "pervasive scam wherein persons working in call centers in India contact American citizens and pretend to be from official United States government or judicial agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service." The scammers amassed $900,000 in money orders in a span of eight months before being brought to trial.
Tulino says the first thing to remember about any inquiries coming from the IRS is that "our normal correspondence is a letter in the mail." In addition, taxpayers have the right to appeal any amount allegedly owed to the agency.
"Under no circumstance," said Tulino, "does the IRS call anybody out of the blue demanding payment be made in a certain way and threatening arrest and being nasty and sinister."
To report a suspicious call, phone 800-366-4484. But whatever you do, don't pay.
If the feds want your money, they'll be only too happy to sit down and discuss it face-to-face.
Contact Tom Barnidge at email@example.com.