You probably don’t owe the IRS: Telephone scam efforts keep popping up

HARLINGEN — It’s happening again … or maybe it never stopped.

They’re rude, aggressive and threatening. They call several times in hopes to scare someone into doing what they ask.

Some local residents have experienced that first-hand and it seems to be a trend on the rise following the recent IRS tax deadline for 2015.

The scammers are out in force and this time they are identifying themselves as the IRS. It’s a sophisticated phone scam targeting taxpayers, including recent immigrants, and it has been making the rounds throughout the country.

It has been in the Rio Grande Valley for the past several months and seems to be on the rise again.

A pair of local residents have reported the recent activity.

Harlingen residents Leonard and Joyce Hanschu even provided a phone number where the calls came from.

A call to that number results in a message that states the number is no longer in service.

A search of the origination of the number shows it is flagged as a scam or fraud — extortion — and it originates as an AT&T mobile number out of Buffalo, N.Y.

The people who flagged the number, three of them on Tuesday, all stated the caller leaves a voicemail claiming the IRS has filed a lawsuit against the call recipient.

Callers claim to be employees of the IRS, but are not. These con artists can sound convincing when they call.

They use fake names and bogus IRS identification badge numbers. They may know a lot about their targets, and they usually alter the caller ID to make it look like the IRS is calling.

Police say with the Internet, scammers can find out information about the people they are calling, such as age ranges.

Also, most calls likely are coming on landline phones, but cell phones have been targeted as well.

The first step following receiving one of these calls is to report it to local law enforcement.

However, the most important thing to do is not acknowledge the people who called. That means don’t call them back and don’t answer the phone if you know it is the scammers calling.

“This scam has hit taxpayers in nearly every state in the country. We want to educate taxpayers so they can help protect themselves. Rest assured, we do not and will not ask for credit card numbers over the phone, nor request a pre-paid debit card or wire transfer,” IRS Acting Commissioner Danny Werfel said. “If someone unexpectedly calls claiming to be from the IRS and threatens police arrest, deportation or license revocation if you don’t pay immediately, that is a sign that it really isn’t the IRS calling.” Werfel noted that the first IRS contact with taxpayers on a tax issue is likely to occur via mail.

The Hanschus just want the calls to stop. They are aware the IRS uses the U.S. Postal Service to communicate with taxpayers.

“A few years ago, our income tax had an error,” the two wrote to the Valley Morning Star. “They contacted us by U.S. mail. The IRS does not call you on the phone for anything.”

They are right, the IRS will never:

Call to demand immediate payment, nor will the agency call about taxes owed without first having mailed you a bill

Demand that you pay taxes without giving you the opportunity to question or appeal the amount they say you owe

Require you to use a specific payment method for your taxes, such as a prepaid debit card

Ask for credit or debit card numbers over the phone

Threaten to bring in local police or other law-enforcement groups to have you arrested for not paying.

The Hanschus are concerned about other people who may not know this is not how things work with the IRS and may feel threatened into providing money or private information. They just hope if people ignore the calls, maybe the scammers will stop.

But the threats still work enough. That’s why the scammers are still trying. The effort is so prevalent the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration is warning people of it on the home page of the website with a yellow colored banner.

Sometimes victims are told they owe money to the IRS and it must be paid promptly through a pre-loaded debit card or wire transfer.

If the victim refuses to cooperate, they are then threatened with arrest, deportation or suspension of a business or driver’s license. In many cases, the caller becomes hostile and insulting.

Or, victims may be told they have a refund due to try to trick them into sharing private information and they will fall for it.

Other characteristics of the scam

Scammers use fake names and IRS badge numbers. They generally use common names and surnames to identify themselves.

Scammers may be able to recite the last four digits of a victim’s Social Security number.

Scammers spoof the IRS toll-free number on caller ID to make it appear that it’s the IRS calling.

Scammers sometimes send bogus IRS emails to some victims to support their bogus calls.

Victims hear background noise of other calls being conducted to mimic a call site.

After threatening victims with jail time or driver’s license revocation, scammers hang up and others soon call back pretending to be from the local police or DMV, and the caller ID supports their claim.

What you should do

If you get a phone call from someone claiming to be from the IRS, here’s what you should do:

If you know you owe taxes or you think you might owe taxes, call the IRS at 1-800-829-1040. The IRS employees at that line can help you with a payment issue — if there really is an issue.

If you know you don’t owe taxes or have no reason to think that you owe any taxes (for example, you’ve never received a bill or the caller made some bogus threats as described above), then call and report the incident to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration at 1-800-366-4484.

You can file a complaint using the FTC Complaint Assistant; choose “Other” and then “Imposter Scams.” If the complaint involves someone impersonating the IRS, include the words “IRS Telephone Scam” in the notes.