Warn Senior Friends and Loved Ones About IRS Scams
Nelson received a frantic call from Mom. "You need to drive me to the bank right away!" she said. "The IRS called and I owe a thousand dollars in back taxes! If I don't wire the money today, they are going to arrest me!" "Hold on, Mom," said Nelson. "That doesn't sound right." But Mom was insistent. "You don't want me to go to jail, do you?"
This tax season, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is warning taxpayers to be "on high alert” against the most pervasive scam in history.
In this scam, criminals call, email or text their victims, pretending to be from the IRS. They claim the victim owes money, and demand immediate payment of the bogus tax bill. They ask for the victim's bank account or credit card information, or they demand payment via a prepaid credit or debit card, money order, wire transfer from the bank, or even iTunes gift cards.
Most of us are already a bit intimidated by the IRS, and the scammers take full advantage of that, using threats of prison or deportation to intimidate a person into complying with their demands. According to J. Russell George, Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA), victims have reported upwards of $30 million in losses—and that is no doubt merely the tip of the iceberg, with many people either unaware they were defrauded, or ashamed to report it.
These con artists can be very sophisticated. They can do a convincing imitation of an agent. They can "spoof" your loved one's caller ID to make it appear that it's the IRS on the line. They create official-looking emails and phony IRS websites.
They also can be menacing and persistent. The IRS reports one of their tactics is to threaten immediate arrest if the victim hangs up; if the victim does hang up, the scammer may call again and again.
The IRS also notes that these crooks frequently target seniors. Older adults are usually very motivated to pay their taxes properly. They often have available money set aside in retirement accounts. They may be less savvy about the ways of con artists. And scammers are quick to take advantage of seniors with memory loss.
How can we protect our older friends and loved ones?
Inspector General George says that his agency is making every effort to apprehend the crooks and shut down their operations. But still, he says, "Our best chance at defeating this crime is to educate people so they do not become victims in the first place. Every taxpayer we protect from this crime is a victory."
The IRS wants taxpayers to be aware of five things scammers do. Any one of these is a sign of a scam, because the IRS will never:
- Call to demand immediate payment, or to discuss 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 credit or 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.
And some victims later admitted, "I did think it was strange for the IRS to text me, or send me a message on Facebook." IRS Commissioner John Koskinen reminds us, "Don't be fooled by callers pretending to be from the IRS in an attempt to steal your money. If you are surprised to be hearing from us, then you're not hearing from us."
If you or a loved one is contacted by one of these scammers, what should you do?
Inspector General George said, "If someone unexpectedly calls claiming to be from the IRS or the Treasury Department, and uses the threat of legal action if you do not pay immediately, that is a sign that it is not the IRS calling, and your cue to hang up. Do not engage with these callers. If they call you, hang up the telephone."
If your loved one fell for the scam, notify local law enforcement immediately. If your loved one gave the scammer bank information, their credit card number or had the bank withdraw and wire money, contact the bank right away. And whether your loved one fell for the scam or not, encourage them to report it—not only to help the IRS catch the crooks, but also for the sense of empowerment that comes from helping others. Here's how to report it:
- Fill out the IRS Impersonation Scam Reporting form on TIGTA's website, or call TIGTA at 800-366-4484.
- You also can file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (www.FTC.gov).
- Forward fraudulent emails to firstname.lastname@example.org. (Do not open any attachments or click any links in those emails.)
- If your loved one does owe federal taxes, or thinks they might, they can call the IRS at 800-829-1040 and talk to an IRS worker.
Protecting the most vulnerable elders
If your loved one has Alzheimer's disease or a related condition, here are suggestions from the U.S. Administration on Aging on how to further protect them from these types of scams:
- Set up a P.O. box for mail delivery so you can screen mail.
- Arrange with the bank to allow access only to predetermined amounts of money, and ask to be notified if a request for a large withdrawal is made.
- Limit credit card access.
- Screen phone calls.
- Look for unusual activity in your loved one's bank account, bounced checks, or "maxed out" credit cards.
Prevention through awareness
The best way to protect senior loved ones from these scammers is to talk to them about it. Bring up the subject! Most seniors have a strong sense of justice; they don't like to be fooled, and they find this a compelling topic. Encourage your loved one to talk to friends about it. Post a link to this article, or to the IRS consumer alerts page, or to a video on the TIGTA YouTube channel.
And last, remind your loved one that people of every age have fallen for these scams. Con artists operate best in the dark. You and your loved one can help shine the light that foils them!