In the second of his two-part series on telephone tax scams, Tom Flanigan reports on what can – and can’t – be done to stop these crimes and how not to become a victim of them.
Just to recap, I was responding to a phone message that said I needed to call the “IRS”. When I called the number provided, a man who clearly identified himself as an “IRS agent” said I owed thousands of dollars in back income tax.
“Whatever amount you paid for your taxes, it was not sufficient and was not complete,” said “Agent Mark Johnson” during our conversation.
He added if I didn’t pay that amount right away, I’d be arrested and my property seized that very afternoon. But this guy was not a real IRS agent, said Mike Dobzinkski. He is the official Internal Revenue Service spokesperson for the state of Florida.
“The IRS just doesn’t pick up the phone and call you and make threats like that,” Dobzinkski insisted. “We send you a bill first; a notice. We put you on notice that you owe money and we don’t use threatening or aggressive tactics like these impersonators or scam artists are.”
But Dobzinski said far too many people do take these scams seriously enough to fall for them.
“Since October of 2013 in the latest statistics I have as of the end of May that approximately 6,800 people have been victims and have paid close to $38 million and Florida’s no exception to this. In Florida, about $1.9 million has been paid out in the scam by 319 victims in Florida.”
Sergeant Melinda McBride with the Financial Crimes Unit of the Leon County Sheriff’s Office said those are just the cases that are reported. She suspected there are many more victims who haven’t made it into the official statistics.
“The gamut runs from young to old, so there’s no specific person. Whoever can be a victim, they will make a victim,” she said.
My phone encounter with the scammers ended right after they instructed me to buy a gift card in order to pay my outstanding tax bill. I didn’t do that, but Financial Crimes Detective Robert Bethea told me what would have happened if I’d followed through with those instructions.
“They would have had you go to an Eckerds, a Walgreens or even a WalMart and get some sort of reloadable gift card,” he explained. “Like Green Dot, you can load up to $5,000 on there and what they’ll have you do is load it with whatever amount you discussed. Then they’ll have you turn it over and scratch off all the numbers – like a routing and account number – and read that off to them. As soon as they do that and they verify the funds are there they can rip that money right off of that card and put it in whatever account they want. Then they hang up on you and you’re done.”
Sadly, said Sergeant McBride, too many people wait until after that happens to call law enforcement.
“And they think, ‘Wait, something’s not right!’ and then they call. Well then we’re out of money because we have no way for the most part of finding that money or recouping any of it because it’s gone,” she said.
That’s because, say investigators, so many of these scams originate from out-of-the-country, even though the phone numbers they use would seem to be based in the United States. The technology does exist to route international calls through domestic phone exchanges and even to show the letters “IRS” on your caller ID screen. So what should you do? IRS spokesperson Mike Dobzinski said it’s simple:
“Hang up! That’s our advice is to hang up on these callers because these calls aren’t from the IRS.”
And if you have any questions, Leon County Sheriff’s Office Financial Crimes Unit Sergeant Melinda McBride said the answers are also as close as your phone.
“People who call our main line are being told when they explain what their situation is. Any deputy, duty office, financial crimes, any law enforcement officer here can tell them yea or nay, whether it’s good or bad and most times it’s not going to be how business is done.”
Sadly, the criminal mind is often a creative mind. And Detective Bethea said new ways of separating the unwary from their bank accounts emerge all the time.
“It’s becoming more and more prevalent every day. A new scheme, a new scam. Nothing surprises me anymore.”