As reports continue to roll in about Internal Revenue Service (IRS) impersonation phone scams, I’ve noticed an uptick in taxpayers offering advice about the best ways to deal with the scammers. It’s not surprising that taxpayers are getting fed up with these scams: since October 2013, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) has received reports of roughly 1.2 million calls made to taxpayers demanding that they send cash to resolve outstanding tax liabilities – and those are just the numbers from taxpayers who have made reports.
Many of you have forwarded details to me about calls and emails you’ve received from scammers. In some cases, messages have been attached, and in other cases, you’ve passed along links to YouTube videos with taxpayers receiving and responding to the calls.
Clearly, some of the scam efforts are better than others. I feel like the scammer ought to know what IRS stands for in order to be taken seriously (hint: it’s not Inland Revenue Service). And while our country is a melting pot, it’s rare that callers working for the federal government will not have a basic grasp of English or not be able to make distinctions between local and federal law agencies and enforcement (hint: 9-1-1 doesn’t make calls about taxes).
And while some of the scammers have been convincing enough to steal over $36.5 million from nearly 6,400 victims in the past couple of years – the biggest scam of its type – many taxpayers have been able to determine that the calls are a scam and have not become victims. Many of these same taxpayers have posted tips on Facebook and other social media for dealing with scammers. The advice ranges from blowing whistles in the phone to trying to “catch” the scammers at their own game by challenging their questions. Many of those same pieces of advice are being re-posted as though they might be effective. They are not. The best advice? Hang up. Don’t engage. Why not? Here are six reasons why those tips don’t work and why you should never engage with scammers:
- When you engage with a scammer – even if you are blowing a whistle in the phone – you’ve just confirmed two pieces of information for the scammers: they’ve called a working phone number AND you’ll answer the phone. Why does this matter? Because stealing money from taxpayers is only one part of the equation. Remember that identity theft isn’t just about getting money out of you one time or stealing a tax refund check, it’s an entire industry. Your data typically isn’t getting stolen in one fell swoop: your identity profile is being put together piece by piece. Key bits of information about you may be stored, repackaged, and sold from one scammer to the next. The fact that you answered the phone and were willing to engage? That’s valuable to scammers who might try it again later – or sell your number to the highest bidder.
- When you tell scammers to stop calling you, you may inadvertently give out more information about your phone number. When you offer comments like “stop calling my house” or “don’t call me at work” or “this is my cell phone,” you’ve just added to the database. Not only do the scammers know that it’s a good number, and you’ll answer (see #1), you’ve now offered up more details about the number the scammer just called (i.e. it’s your house, workplace or cell number). If they’re simply calling off of a stolen call list, you’ve just made your phone number more valuable.
- When you tell scammers that you know you don’t owe anything, you might have confirmed your name, that you’re a taxpayer, and worse, possibly your Social Security Number (SSN). Remember, this isn’t some kid calling with a script: these are professional thieves who likely do this for a living. They know how to get what they want. It can be easy to give out or confirm additional information even if you don’t intend to. For example, if a scammer says, “Our records indicate that Kelly Erb with SSN 123-45-6789 owes $5,400,” and I reply “That’s not true, I always pay my taxes,” I might have inadvertently offered up more information. Not only does the scammer now know that my phone number is good (see #1), they have a name to attach to it. And since I automatically didn’t say, “That’s not my Social Security Number,” that may be an indication that they have the right SSN, too. So now they might have the name and SSN of a taxpayer who claims to be current: that strongly suggests that I have a job or other taxable income and that I have enough in assets to pay my bills regularly. I just became an even more valuable commodity to the scammer.
- When you make threats back, you might be offering valuable “out of wallet” information. It may be tempting to bring out the big guns like “I’ll get you, I’m a lawyer” or “How dare you, my dad is a cop” or “Just wait until my Army husband, Bill, gets home.” But think about what you’ve just said. Yes, more information about yourself. Those additional nuggets are helping form your profile. As law enforcement told me, pieces of data are matched to other data. Suddenly, you’re no longer just a random phone number. You’re Jane Smith, SSN 123-45-6789. You’re a lawyer, and your dad is a cop. You live at 123 Elm Street, Anytown, USA 12345 (since that address matches your phone number). Your spouse’s name is Bill, and he works for the government. That data – especially once it’s been matched with more data which can be found in other places, such as social media sites or from a recent hack – is incredibly valuable.
- You might be breaking the law. But they called you, right? It might not matter. In most states, and according to federal law, you can record phone calls with the consent of just one party to the call. But in 12 states (California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Washington), you need the consent of both parties to record a call. There are exceptions to these rules for law enforcement investigations, emergency situations, or certain unlawful activities: scammers should fall into the latter category, but the rules aren’t always clear. I’m sure you’ve noticed that in the myriad of advice being handed out from IRS, TIGTA, and other law enforcement, it does not include recording the call. If you haven’t been directed to record the call, don’t engage, and don’t record.
- You’re never going to make them feel bad. I know that it makes you feel better to tell off a scammer but at the end of the day, it doesn’t bother them. Understand that these people are thieves. They are preying on vulnerable people – typically the elderly, students, and immigrants – who they can bully. They often use threatening language to scare taxpayers into giving up information or money: in one such instance, an older victim was so distraught as a result of threats from the scammer, that he crashed his car on the way to pick up a wire. These are not nice people. Your threats, bad language, telling them off? They’ve likely heard – and said – worse. You’re not fazing them one bit. Don’t waste your time.
Rather than rely on tips from your Facebook friends, here’s advice from the professionals (IRS, TIGTA and law enforcement) about how to best deal with the scammers: If you receive a call from someone claiming to be from the IRS, and you do not owe tax, or if you are immediately aware that it’s a scam, don’t engage with the scammer and do not give out any information. Just hang up.
If you receive a phone call from someone claiming to be with the IRS, and you owe tax or think you may owe tax, do not give out any information. Call the IRS back at 1.800.829.1040 to find out more information.
You can also contact TIGTA to report scam calls by calling 1.800.366.4484 or by using the “IRS Impersonation Scam Reporting” form on their website. You may also want to report the scam to the Federal Trade Commission by using the “FTC Complaint Assistant” to report persons pretending to be from the government; please add “IRS Telephone Scam” in the notes.
Don’t fall for the tricks. Keep your personal information safe by remaining alert. For tips on protecting yourself from identity theft-related tax fraud, click here.