Good news! The Justice Department has officially busted the IRS phone scam, sentencing 21 conspirators last week. They also secured indictments against 32 perpetrators in India, breaking up both sides of this multinational operation, in which more than 15,000 Americans lost hundreds of millions of dollars between 2012 and 2016. So you would think we are all now safe from fake IRS officials calling to warn us that we will soon be arrested for tax violations if we don’t pay up. There is just one teensy little problem with this: I got three fake IRS calls yesterday, all warning that the cops are coming for me. Let this be a timely reminder: Those looking to bilk you are like the moles in Whac-A-Mole. Smack one down, and another pops up to take its place.[i] There is a near-endless supply. No matter how many rings Justice busts, the onus remains on us to look out for ourselves and loved ones.
Though the perpetrators may change, they still use the same tricks and leave the same telltale warning signs as their predecessors, making them easy to spot if you know what to look for. The new IRS scammers still make the same fatal mistake: calling their targets, which is something the actual IRS would never do. The feds like doing things in an official manner, which means sending official letters with seals and signatures and things. They will also nag you with bills and more letters rather than threaten to sic the police on you. These will be physical sheets of paper, sent through the US Postal Service, not emails.
But even if you don’t know this, you can protect yourself and your inner circle with simple logic. For one, don’t answer your phone if you don’t recognize the number. Then take advantage of caller ID to find out who is calling you. The calls I received yesterday came from the 240, 646 and 204 area codes—in Maryland, Manhattan and, um, Manitoba. While the IRS may have field offices in the greater Washington, D.C and New York City areas, it seems safe to say they have not outsourced operations to a call center in Canada. More likely, the scammers’ caller ID spoofer got stuck in the M-As, which I guess is a refreshing change from their spoofing numbers with my own mobile number’s area code and prefix.
You don’t need to rely on the area code, though. We live in the future, so you can Google the entire number. That is what I did yesterday. The first result for 240-219-3685 was a “robocaller warning.” The next several outed it as a scam caller. For 646-682-0860, the first hit outed it as IRS scammers. Ditto for the Canadian number, 204-400-2392.
Now, I didn’t answer any of these calls, as they violated the simple rule: Don’t answer any call that is unexpected, unsolicited and coming from an unknown number. So how do I know they were IRS scammers? Lucky for me, all the robocallers left robovoicemails. Here is the message left by my Canadian roboscammer:
“Investigation team of IRS. We have just received a notification regarding your tax filings from the headquarters, which will get expired in next 24 working hours. And once it get expired after that you will be taken under custody by the local cops, as there are four serious allegations pressed on your name at this moment. We would request you to get back to us so that we can discuss about this case before taking any legal action against you. The number to reach us is 204-400-2392. I repeat, 204-400-2392. Thank you.”
The message from Manhattan was identical except for the phone number, but the Maryland robo mixed things up a bit:
“Services. The reason of this call is to inform you that Internal Revenue Services is filing lawsuit against you and arrest warrant has been released on your name. To get more information about this case file and arrest warrant from federal database please call immediately after the [unintelligible] recording at our headquarters number. That is 646-682-0860. I repeat, 646-682-0860. Internal Revenue Service agent is waiting for your call back.”
The first message used a female voice that sounded like it came from an automatic voice generator—sort of like Siri, but with no inflection or personality. The second sounded like an actual recording of a live human male. But neither sounded anything like what you might imagine an official IRS recording to be. The grammar was atrocious. The message was nonsense. My tax filings will get expired? Or the notification will get expired? And what the heck does “24 working hours” refer to? A day is 24 hours long, but the working day is not 24 hours, and hours themselves cannot work. And since when do the feds press allegations? Press charges, sure, but not allegations. And they would press charges “against” me, as a person, and not “on” my name. Same goes for the arrest warrant. Finally, “local cops,” really? Has my life suddenly morphed into a 1980s action movie? I’m pretty sure even innocent child pranksters could concoct a more convincing message.
Anyway, not to be pejorative, but since most telephone fraud rings originate outside the US, they often feature spotty grammar and questionable phrasing like the preceding examples. That is one of the classic tells. Same goes for fishy emails.[ii] As a general rule, if it doesn’t sound like it was written by a civil servant and reviewed by three mid-level bosses and a compliance team, which is probably the minimum bureaucratic review process at someplace like the IRS, it is fake.
This is all easy for me to spot as a reasonably tech-savvy youngish gal, but sadly, I’m not the target market. Scammers prefer preying on those least likely to catch them, which in the IRS scam’s case, means immigrants and the elderly. So if you are reading this, I urge you to educate elderly or less tech-savvy relatives and help keep them safe. Encourage the most vulnerable to run all solicitations past you first. Remind them repeatedly not to give their financial information to anyone who calls or emails them. Tell them about every new scam you hear about. Tell them Miss Manners will not judge them for hanging up on unfamiliar callers.
[i] For more on this, check out Snigdha Poonham’s excellent journalism on the subject. Also, you podcast fans, check out Reply All and its two-parter entitled, “Long Distance,” in which Alex Goldman turns the tables on a scammy call center.
[ii] Aka “phishing” schemes, which have nothing to do with the jam band and everything to do with stealing your money and personal information.
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