In the middle of the week, I received the most exciting–and irritating–voicemail ever. Well, maybe not ever, but I can’t really remember all the way back to my middle school crank phone call days*. After thirty-six seconds, a tinny voice disconnected, and I realized that I had finally heard my first IRS scam. That’s right, the unicorn of phone calls, the pinnacle of scams is now indelibly recorded on my smartphone.
For those of you who haven’t discovered the white whale of scams, the voicemail plays as such: “The reason that this call is to inform you that the IRS is filing lawsuit against you. To get more information about this case file, please call immediately on our department number 360-810-6225. I repeat 360-810-6225. Thank you.” Mine was then followed by eleven seconds of static-riddled silence. And yes, the missing words are courtesy of the caller, not my poor keyboarding skills.
The fact that these phone calls are still so pervasive is maddening. Robo-callers using MagicJack phones and similar technology that is far beyond my ken** to prey on unsuspecting people is vile. Because I had previously heard of this scam from a family friend, my pulse never spiked, my palms never broke a sweat. But I can’t say the same for everyone else.
Once I began my research (read: one lengthy Google search and a lengthy trip down the rabbit holes that are the websites of the federal government), I realized that the IRS does post scam information on their website and says that they are continuing to issue strong warnings about these hoax phone calls. I’m not sure exactly what the IRS means by issuing warnings, though. Sure, they might post them on their website, but who hangs out there?
I live in the personal finance world by choice. I calculate and pay my own taxes each year. I live for this stuff. And I still only found the warnings after explicitly searching for them following the phone call. Assuming that everyone has the access and the ability to perform such a search and will stay calm enough to do so might be asking too much. There has to be a better way to educate the masses–add it to a footnote on the bottom of phone bills, perhaps.
Lest your initial knee-jerk reaction be that no one actually takes these calls seriously, the IRS issued a 2016 report called “Phone Scams Continue to be a Serious Threat” that indicates nearly 900,000 reports of fraudulent calls have been issued and that over 5,000 people paid upwards of $26 million. A whole lot of someones are taking these calls to heart. While the IRS is not entirely clear as to which demographics ponied up that kind of cash, numerous documents on the website indicate that scammers tend to target immigrants. I would wager that elderly people come in a close second. Though I am always cautious of painting with too broad a stroke, it only makes sense that scammers would try to target groups of people who might be less informed or easier to scare.
I didn’t scare. For those of you who are wondering how the scam played out, I resisted the urge to return the call lest my number be forever etched into a telemarketer database. Instead, I Tweeted about it, and then took further action. Following the recommendation of the IRS, I contacted the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Information and the Federal Trade Commission. Both requested a simple report and it took less than five minutes to complete.
This whole scam also underscored the importance of financial literacy with a side of healthy skepticism. As a word snob by trade, anything with grammatical mistakes holds little water in my world. That was the first strike. I was also fortunate enough to receive some financial education from my parents and school. Additionally, while I’m certain the IRS can, indeed, file lawsuits, I know that they are more likely to conduct an audit. I also know that if I really were in some sort of legal trouble, I would mostly likely be contacted via certified mail. All in all, this call rang more than just a little phony to me.
However, this isn’t the time to switch from caveat emptor to the Latin equivalent of taxpayer beware. Blaming victims does not solve anything. In fact, that kind of fingerpointing makes issues less likely to be reported and problems less likely to be solved. We can begin by reporting scams and requesting that government agencies continue to work to mainstream these cautions. We can also keep the conversation going by reminding each other that no, the IRS isn’t likely to be calling this tax season or ever.
* Complete with school-issued phone books — file that away under just another questionable public education decision — and wall-mounted telephones with cords that I could spin just the right way to drive my mother to the brink of insanity.
** I never even mastered how to block a number back in the heyday of sleepover crank calls. I’m basically as cool as you imagined.
So Tell Me…Do you have any scam stories to share? How did you react?