Teresa McUsic

That phone message from the IRS or FBI? It was probably a scam

Phone scams in which impersonators pretend to be with the IRS increase during the spring tax season.
Phone scams in which impersonators pretend to be with the IRS increase during the spring tax season. AP

Move over identity theft — you have been surpassed by impersonation fraud.

Last month, the local FBI office issued a warning that impersonators are showing up on home-phone caller IDs as “FBI” and using the actual phone number of the FBI’s Wichita Falls office.

This week, the IRS sent out a similar warning about impersonators.

“These con artists can sound convincing when they call,” according to the IRS. “They use fake names and bogus IRS identification badge numbers. They may know a lot about their targets, and they usually alter the caller ID to make it look like the IRS is calling.”

According to the most recent data from the Federal Trade Commission, impersonators are now the No. 2 consumer problem in the country, with more than 406,000 complaints in 2016, or 13 percent of the total. Collection agencies are still No. 1, logging more than 859,000 complaints, or 28 percent. Identity theft came in third with almost 400,000 complaints.

The Texas complaint record to the FTC showed almost 25,000 imposter complaints, second-most behind California.

Impersonators are scammers who represent other entities and contact their victims either via phone, email or text. They usually ask for money to settle a debt, tax or fine and they want it quickly in the form of a credit or debit card number, money order, gift card or wire transfer. They also could be looking for personal information to set up false loans or credit card accounts.

Impersonators have been around for decades, but they have recently added new levels of sophistication. They may now have a bit of information about you — like a student loan number or cellphone number — that legitimizes their authority.

The other new twist is that scammers can now mask their identities to actually look like the people they’re impersonating on your caller ID, making it more likely for someone to fall prey to the scam, according to the Dallas office of the FBI.

The FBI office reports a wave of phone scam attempts targeting Texans. The scammers use intimidation tactics to try to get money they say is owed the government. In some cases, university students are being targeted and informed they owe delinquent student loan fees.

The callers often have foreign accents and identify themselves as FBI agents, IRS agents or other government officials. The imposters request immediate payment of unpaid taxes, delinquent fees or other debts to the government.

This is a good time to remind you that the FBI, IRS and any other government agency does not call a private citizen to request money. The FBI says to hang up immediately and notify law enforcement if you receive such a call.

To report a call, contact the Dallas FBI field office at 972-559-5000. You can also file a complaint with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, https://www.ic3.gov.

The IRS also sees a surge of impersonators at this time of year as the tax deadline approaches.

Victims are told they owe money to the IRS and must pay promptly through a preloaded debit card or wire transfer, the IRS said. If the victim doesn’t cooperate, they are often threatened with arrest. The caller can become hostile and insulting.

In another scam, victims are told they have a refund due in order to trick them into sharing private information. If the phone isn’t answered, the phone scammers can leave an “urgent” call-back request.

“Don’t let the convincing tone of these scam calls lead you to provide personal or credit card information, potentially losing hundreds or thousands of dollars,” said IRS Commissioner John Koskinen in a statement. “Just hang up and avoid becoming a victim to these criminals.”

The IRS will be working with private collectors to collect IRS debt in a new program starting later this spring, the agency said. But neither the IRS nor the hired debt collectors will contact a taxpayer by phone first. The initial contact will be through a letter in the mail both from the IRS and the collector, the IRS said.

If you have received a call from an impersonator claiming to be from the IRS, contact the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration at 800-366-4484 or fill out a report at https://www.treasury.gov/tigta/contact_report_scam.shtml.

Teresa McUsic’s column appears Saturdays. TMcUsic@SavvyConsumer.net

Imposter scams

▪ Poses as a friend or relative stranded in a foreign country without money. Callers sometimes pose as a grandchild to target the elderly.

▪ Claims to be working for or affiliated with a government agency like the IRS or FBI.

▪ Claims to be a computer technician offering software services that are not necessary.

▪ Claims to be with a charity or company.

Source: Federal Trade Commission