Around the country, law enforcement agencies are noticing an uptick in IRS phone scams and are warning the public not to fall for it. I received an IRS scam voicemail this week and decided to take the scammer for a ride.
This IRS scam is starting to re-emerge lately. As ridiculous as it is, it must work -- otherwise these scammers wouldn't keep trying it. So, we are going to walk you step by step through the IRS phone scam and explain all of the warning signs and what you can do to fight back. Basically, these scammers try to trick people into thinking they owe the IRS thousands of dollars. Then, the scammer threatens an arrest warrant unless the victim pays over the phone.
I was called this week by one of these scammers. Instead of hanging up or blocking them, I decided to keep them on the line and see how long I could tie them up. I figured that every minute that the scammer was focused on me, he wasn't able to trick some gullible person into giving away their life savings. I kept him on the line for 83 minutes.
The scam usually begins with either a phone call or a voicemail alerting you that you owe the Internal Revenue Service a large amount of money and that a warrant will be issued for your arrest if you do not pay up. I know, pretty scary stuff. In my case, I received a "voice drop" voicemail. What that means is that the scammers are using an automated system to deliver messages to targets' voicemail inboxes without ever even ringing their phones.
I called the number back and was eventually transferred to an IRS agent named "Tom." My scammer had a thick Indian accent and spoke in semi-broken English, making it very difficult to understand him at times. But since I know this scam, I was able to fill in the blanks of what he was telling me.
Tom started by informing me that I was years late on my income tax filing. The tax year that he claimed I forgot to file for was way back in 2009. Tom told me that because I had failed to file and pay, my account had accrued eight years of interest, fines, and fees and I now owed the IRS $4,000.
"Oh no," I responded, channeling all of my high school acting training. "Why am I only hearing about this now?"
That is when Tom dropped his first bit of personal information. There are certain aspects of all of our lives that are considered publicly available information. Even if you think something about your life is private, you'd be surprised at just how much of your life is actually available in public records. Somewhere on the internet, "Tom" was able to find my home address.
"We send multiple letter to your home at [my home address] and get no response," Tom sternly told me, "so we have no choice but to issue warrant for your arrest."
Right here is where they try to scare their marks and knowing the person's address gives the scammer an air of legitimacy. I responded and begged Mr. Tom not to arrest me and asked if there was anything I could do to bring my account current.
And this is where the scam really jumps the shark. I was instructed to go to a convenience store or supermarket near my house and purchase hundreds of dollars in gift cards. Then, I was supposed to read the gift card numbers and PINs over the phone to Tom.
Now, just in case this isn't obvious, the Internal Revenue Service will never ask you to pay off your back taxes using gift cards. That seems like something that should just be common sense, but then again, they run this scam for a reason. Obviously, people fall for it.
At this point, we're 35 minutes into the call. That is more than half an hour that this scammer isn't out there swindling someone else. So, I figured, I might as well go all in. With Tom on the phone, I walked outside, got in my car, and "drove to the convenience store." Sure, I could have just done all of this from the comfort of my home. But I wanted Tom to hear the door of my Jeep slam. I wanted him to hear the seat belt alarm go off as I was on the phone with him. However, I never left my street.
"Ok, I'm here," I told him. "I am going to leave you in the car while I go in and buy the cards."
I then pressed the mute button on my phone and spent the next 15 minutes listening to my radio. Finally, I got back on and told Tom I had the cards.
"Good. Read please the numbers to me," he stammered. You could tell he was starting to get excited. It was like I could hear his racing heartbeat over the phone.
I read off a random number and gave him a random four digit PIN. As I was starting to "read off" the next "card," Tom stopped me and said that something was wrong. The excitement had instantly drained from his voice.
"The card doesn't work. Are you sure you read it correctly?"
At this point, I was nervous that the entire game was going to end. Tom was starting to get aggravated. But, I knew I could drag him out a little longer. He had put in just under an hour with me and he was too close to a payday just to give up. So, I apologized and said that the card must not have been activated. I told him that I would leave my phone in the car and go back in to make sure they activated it. I hit mute and turned the radio back on.
Tom lasted 26 more minutes on mute before he completely snapped. I was truly surprised he waited on the line that long. While our entire conversation up to that point made it clear that Tom was not a native English speaker by any stretch of the imagination, the sheer ferocity of the insults and expletives he dropped made me do a double take.
"You son of a [expletive]. I am going to [expletive] kill you and your family. Your mother is a [expletive. Go [expletive] a [expletive]." This went on for 60 seconds and while that may not seem like a long time, an entire uninterrupted minute of an Indian man cursing at you feels like an eternity.
After promising to find and kill me one last time, Tom hung up. I tried calling back, but my number had already been added to a block list.
I may have kept this man on the line for almost an hour and a half, but he likely went right back to the phones after he hung up on me. And there are hundreds, if not thousands, of other people like him running these same sorts of scams.
It is next to impossible for local police, or any American law enforcement for that matter, to track these calls. Every now and then, Indian police raid a scammer call center and pretend to have fixed the problem. But the scammers always return.
If you get one of these calls, for goodness sake don't send them any money over the phone. But if you have time to kill, consider trying to drag the conversation out as long as possible. There are gullible grandmas out in Tennessee and Nebraska who will thank you.