Worried about the I.R.S. scam? Here's how to handle phone fraud

  • By Christine Hauser,
  • The New York Times News Service
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Lee Meyer, a retired New York City schoolteacher, recently began getting strange telephone calls on weekday afternoons. A woman claiming to be a Treasury Department official left a message and a phone number, Mr. Meyer said, telling him he needed to settle a “tax-fraud charge” or else he would be hauled in front of a “magistrate judge.”

His reaction? “I laughed,” he said. “I wasn’t born yesterday.”

Reasons to amend your tax return

If you missed deductions or credits, consider amending your return.

Mr. Meyer, 83, did not return the calls, having learned long ago what law enforcement and consumer protection officials say many Americans need to remember: The Internal Revenue Service does not call people and threaten legal action or harass them over debts.

The Justice Department recently highlighted that message when it announced it had broken up a vast I.R.S. impersonation operation in which conspirators in the United States coordinated with call centers in India from 2012 to 2016, causing “hundreds of millions of dollars” in losses to more than 15,000 victims.

Twenty-four people have been convicted and sentenced in the case, and more indictments have been issued in India. The Justice Department said it hoped the case would serve as a deterrent.

“I.R.S. scams, as well as other telefraud scams, are conducted by multiple groups and individuals operating out of India, Nigeria, Costa Rica, Jamaica and other countries,” said Nicole Navas Oxman, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department. “While this prosecution is a major success in disrupting the largest group of conspirators operating out of multiple call centers identified to date, other perpetrators of the IRS scam and similar scams remain at large.”

After The New York Times’s article on Monday about the convictions, readers, including Mr. Meyer, responded with their own stories. Some asked where they could turn for restitution or to report suspicious calls.

One reader said he had fallen victim in June after being instructed to transfer $8,000 in Best Buy cards — a common type of fraud in which a person is told to obtain a prepaid card and provide the number to the caller.

Another reader said that a friend of her father had recently lost $5,000 in such a scam. And a couple said they had received at least 10 calls in the last three months, which they ignored, claiming that their tax return had problems that needed to be addressed immediately.

Some steps you can take to protect yourself

As The Times has previously recommended, don’t provide personal information and don’t engage with the caller. But you can ask for a name to include it in a complaint.

To shred or not to shred?

Many records are no longer needed three years after filing your tax return.

The website of the Treasury inspector general for tax administration has an online form to report I.R.S. impersonations. It includes sections for reporting how much you paid to the perpetrators of the fraud, and whether you provided personal information. A personal identification number is assigned to the case so you can confirm that any agent who follows up is legitimate.

You can also file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, which investigates consumer fraud.

If you’ve been scammed and you file a complaint, you might be entitled to restitution if a court orders defendants to pay up. You’ll only have a limited amount of time to claim losses, because the court may amend restitution orders for up to 60 days after sentencing.

In the case of the India call centers, that date would be in mid-September. The claim form for that case is online.

If you used a wire transfer to pay a con artist, you should contact the wire transfer company. The MoneyGram Customer Care Center is 1‑800‑926‑9400. The Western Union Fraud Hotline is 1-800-448-1492.

The I.R.S. generally contacts people by mail. If you receive a suspicious email claiming to be from the agency, do not open attachments or click on links. Forward it to phishing@irs.gov.

It is not always the I.R.S. that is being impersonated. Be aware, and learn to recognize a scam when you see or hear one.

The indictment pertaining to the Justice Department’s recent convictions described other ploys used by the conspirators. Some calls were purported to be from immigration officials who threatened deportation unless bogus fines were paid. Another technique was to pretend to be a payday lender and promise a loan if a fee was paid upfront, and then the loan would never materialize, the indictment said.

Federal agencies have pages where consumers can browse scams by type, and the list suggests that there is no end to the creativity of crooked callers.

This month alone, the F.T.C. warned about half a dozen types of scams.

Focus on your finances

More on taxes, college savings, and other money matters.

The F.T.C. said this week that people answering advertisements for child-care jobs had been tricked into buying supplies from a specific vendor before they were hired. The promised reimbursement and job never materialized after the vendor was paid.

Con artists also impersonate a relative or friend pleading to be bailed out of jail or swept up in a travel emergency and in need of a loan. Others pretend they are collecting money, cars or boats for military veterans.

Reports about online romantic scams, in which impostors created fake profiles to trick a love interest, have tripled from 2012 to 2016, the F.T.C. said. “Some even make wedding plans before disappearing with the money,” the agency said.

“These scams can take a military angle with impostors stealing service members’ photos to create phony profiles,” it added. “They might claim to be service members who can’t get into their accounts overseas or who need money fast.”

The agency also warned consumers last week of a common technical support scam.

“You’re working on your computer when, suddenly, a message pops up on the screen: ‘Virus detected! Call now for a free security scan and to repair your device,’” the agency said in a blog post. The impostor asks for remote access, or pretends to run a test, it said.

If you’re worried about your computer, the agency advised, call your security software company directly, and do not use the phone number in the pop-up window or on caller ID.

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