Ever since I lived in New York City, I have always been interested in scams and con games. Living in NYC, I would often go to Time Square and watch the guys running three card Cee-lo and the shell game.
Others would sell electronics like camcorders, stereo systems, and other high-end items. In those scams, the guys that would make sales were selling rocks that were shrink wrapped in boxes; then, a couple of fake cops would come running just after the sale was made and scare the mark off. Only later they would realize they just bought a box of rocks!
Back in those days, scams ran rampant in the city, and I wanted to know what made people fall for them. Eventually, the city began to reduce the number people out there who were preying on individuals, but couldn’t completely eradicate them all.
Now, as technology has improved, the scams have as well. The shell game is now digital, and that guy trying to sell you a box of rocks – he’s calling you up personally.
This past week someone tried to scam me. I had a voicemail from the IRS telling me that I was bound for prison if I didn’t call them and settle the warrant that has been issued for me. After hearing that poorly created voicemail, I had to call. Wouldn’t you?
Now, we all know that the IRS doesn’t call people – Well, we should know that – however, after talking to this guy, I must wonder just how many people don’t know.
Let me tell you about the call. When neither me or the scam artist, weren’t talking you could hear a lot of other people talking in the background. I can imagine all the people around him talking to others, who may not realize it is a scam, and are being taken for their hard-earned dollars.
I was asked to verify my name, and address. I ended up giving them the name I used as a deejay for a local radio station eons ago, Michael St. James. I was put on hold, after giving him that name, and a zip code from El Paso, when he came back, he provided me an address for my home and asked me if that was correct.
Later in the call, after he admitted he was trying to scam me out of my money, he said that when people call they are usually able to pull up all their information based on their phone number (of course, I was using Google Voice to call them!).
I then gave an address to home I used to live in back in the 80’s. Can you guess what happened?
After looking in his database, he found a case against me! Told me I was speaking to Officer Counts William, at least I think that was his name. I was given an agent ID number and extension number.
“An arrest warrant has been issued under your name by the IRS for tax evasion and tax evasion. Sir, are you aware about this situation?” He asked.
Trying to sound professional, he told me he believed I was a tax payer, and asked if that was correct. He then said that they were not saying that I didn’t file my taxes, just that I paid too little taxes. After an audit had indicated I had many errors on my tax returns for the last five years, I owed a total of $4898.00.
That amount is significant. Why?
Well, MoneyGram, at most locations, will not let you send over $5,000. Many Western Union agents have the same policy. I did speak to Marjorie Johnston at Western Union about this, the dollar amount given by the fake IRS agent.
“I can’t talk about other companies and what they might do, only what we do,” Marjorie began. “We limit you for a few reasons. Some countries limit what people can receive. Other times, you can’t send in, or out, more than $10,000 without doing IRS paperwork. These scammers ask for an amount under $5,000 because it won’t trigger any of our internal alerts.”
Marjorie also said that some vendors, such as check cashing stores, or grocery stores might have even lower limits due to the number of people sending money to individuals they don’t personally know.
Locally, Walmart is the largest vendor of MoneyGram services. I wanted to speak to them about what happens if someone comes in saying that they are paying the IRS for back taxes, or even paying for something bought off Craigslist.
I spoke with Vianey at the Walmart Money Center on Alameda. She told me the MoneyGram limit, per transaction, is $10,000. That’s a lot of money to send out; however, Vianey, and the others who work in the Money Center are on the lookout for people who do want to send money to someone that may be scamming them.
“The IRS never calls you,” Vianey said. “If someone is sending money to the IRS or someone they don’t know, we ask more questions. If they know the person face to face, and if they say no, we don’t proceed with the transaction. If it’s for the IRS, we won’t proceed either.”
Vianey did reiterate that if it is a high amount being sent, they will question the sender to see if they do know the recipient.
How many people who want to send MoneyGram from Walmart are doing so because of a fake call from the IRS? “Five out of ten people say that. There is a lot of fraud going on.”
I had mentioned to a friend of mine that I was writing this story. He told me about a member of his church, Ida Whitstone, who was taken in by this same scam. She agreed to speak with me after listening to the recording of the call.
“The people I was having call me did not have the same accent as the one in your recording,” Ida says. “The one I was talking with sounded quite British and well spoken.”
What Ida shared, I’m afraid, may be all too common. “The first call was to inform me that I was going to go to jail if I did not pay my back taxes. Like you, I was requested to verify my home address and telephone number. From there, he seemed to know everything about me, even the last four numbers of my social security number.”
Ida was told that she was required to pay taxes on both her retirement, as well as other monies she had invested. “I thought I was all right. He was entirely convincing. To settle I was required to give a credit card number over the telephone. On my monthly statement, it showed the IRS charged me.”
After giving them her card number, Ida began to see multiple charges showing they were from the IRS. That’s when her grandson Bill became involved.
“I talked with the people at the bank. We disputed the charges. It turned out that the charges were processed through Square, and that was when we found out you could put anything you wanted as your business name without proof of it.”
Ida was lucky; she could get her money back.
Seeking information about this scam, and its scope, I spoke to Ricardo at the local Internal Revenue Office. As he was providing me information on how to report such a call, he mentioned that they have more than a few people who have come into the local office to report having received such calls.
I also spoke with Jim Huff, the marketing director of First Light Federal Credit Union here in El Paso. Mr. Huff told me that this scam, with the IRS, is not only working but a hot button issue.
Most people worry about paying taxes, and what they may owe. He did say, however, that for the most part, they seek to prey upon the elderly.
“We do look after our members,” Mr. Huff said. “When someone comes in and makes an uncharacteristically large cash withdraw, or mentions they are going to pay the IRS we will speak with them. We try to prevent what may be a scam.”
He did tell me that they have had members indicate they were taken in by such scams, but at that point, it is too late to help them.
After speaking with everyone quoted in this article, and a few who didn’t want to publicly share their story, I have compiled the following tips:
First: The IRS will never ask for your credit card, or debit card information over the phone. There are only three companies that are authorized to take credit card, or debit card payments on behalf of the IRS.
From what I have learned, employees of the IRS will direct you to one these agencies to make such a payment. You may follow this link to see what ways are afforded individuals in need of making tax payments.
Second: (and I know this one first hand) The IRS will NEVER demand you pay your taxes without affording you the opportunity to question the amount or appeal.
Part of the script my IRS scam artist was reading from said that I could either pay the amount, or fight it in court. Still, most people only hear that there is a warrant already issued for their arrest, so the feel compelled to pay. In the end, you can appeal the amount, and any employee of the IRS will explain how to do that.
Third: The IRS will not tell you that you need to pay with a particular form of payment, such as a pre-paid card. Another person I spoke to, who asked not to be identified, said that he was told to go to the nearest Walmart, and the scammer provided the address, and to purchase an American Express Serve card to pay the amount they said was owed. That’s just not something the IRS does.
Fourth: As you heard in the call, when I told my scammer that the IRS does not call individuals, he tried to tell me that they do once you do not respond to any of their letters. Again, I was told by Ricardo and the media relations department of the IRS that they will never call you to tell you that you owe money. Even if you don’t respond to their letters, they are not going to call.
Fifth: No IRS agent or employee is going to tell you that the local police are going to arrest you. “Going to jail is possible,” says Lenard Silverman, a tax attorney in New York City. “Depending on the exact situation, it can happen. But, not for such a small sum. A tax lien, bank levy, or garnishment of wages is more likely.”
If you have received one of the calls, or if you think you may owe taxes, there are quite a few avenues open to you. The first thing you should do, before even thinking of paying when you receive one of these calls it to hang up, and call the IRS. By calling 1.800.829.1040, you will be able to determine if there are monies owed.
The next step, if you have received such a call, is to contact the TIGTA (Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration) by calling 1.800.366.4484. You may also use the IRS Impersonation Scam Reporting Form (LINK)
Another agency to report such calls to is the Federal Trade Commission by using their FTC Complaint Assistant (LINK) at
“I just want your readers to know,” says Ida, “I learned the hard way. The IRS, though a government agency, is not going to call you. They are also not going to turn you away if you contact them for assistance. I know others who found themselves losing rather large sums of money to this scam. Like me, they are rather advanced in age, and on a fixed income. Don’t believe them when they call. Question them. Then, seek the help of your family, your church leadership, or even the police- for this IRS scam, or anyone that calls with offers that do not seem to ring true.”
Ida is right. Don’t fall for it. Don’t be the person I may write about one day saying you’ve lost everything because of a scam. Like those people I used to watch in New York City, if it just seems too good to be true, or if it doesn’t feel right, avoid it. Call someone.
I’ve uploaded the call, as a video to YouTube. While you hear the call, you will see some tips about dealing with callers who claim to be the IRS. To watch/listen click the player above or click here. If you would rather just hear the audio, it can be found here.