Most consumers can spot a scam attempt almost as soon as they pick up the phone. However, one recent spate of calls has citizens and government officials concerned.
The callers pretend to represent the Internal Revenue Service, or IRS. They claim they’re calling because taxes are past due; unless payment is made immediately, the caller threatens to file a lawsuit, seize property, even do them physical harm.
In the past two weeks, the Maine attorney general and Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection, or BCCP, have issued warnings about these scams. Similar warnings from officials around the country show scammers are ramping up their efforts. And they’re doing so a lot earlier than usual.
The fake IRS scam usually hits high gear during the run-up to income tax season, that is, in February, March and early April. This year, however, crooks have been burning the phone lines pretending to be IRS agents, police officers, court officials and others who might be in the business of collecting delinquent taxes.
Except, they’re not. They’re just criminals trying to get you to wire them money you can never get back.
“It’s really unusual that they’ve started in December,” David Leach of BCCP said.
Leach said his office has received calls from across Maine. Many callers said they realized they were targets of a scam attempt; others said they didn’t realize they were being victimized until they had sent money they had no hopes of recovering.
As with most scams, the crooks demand that money be sent by wire transfer or prepaid cash cards. Both methods are untraceable, and crooks count on that fact — plus their scare tactics to make their scams work.
Aiding their schemes are electronic tactics, such as spoofing, which makes a phony number appear on caller ID devices. The criminals can make it appear they really are calling from an IRS office, when they may be halfway around the world.
The callers can make their threats sound real, but they’re as phony as the call itself. The real IRS never cold calls; it always sends a letter first — on real IRS stationery — and never asks for credit or debit card information or that money be sent by wire transfer or money card.
If a phone caller claims to be calling from the IRS office in Washington, at the very least the phone number should include a 202 area code. Ask for the agency’s exact name, physical address and the supervisor’s direct dial — not 800 — phone number. If you’re in doubt, locate the phone number of the real tax office and call to find out if you have taxes that are overdue. Don’t disclose personal information — date of birth, Social Security number, credit or bank account numbers — to unknown callers; you could become a victim of identity theft.
Report suspicious activity to the BCCP (1-800-332-8529), to an IRS office or to a federal law enforcement officer in Maine or Boston. The anti-scam guide Gone Phishing is available free to Maine residents who call BCCP at the number above or online at CreditMaine.gov.
Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer, ME 04412, visit https://necontact.wordpress.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.