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If something sounds fishy, it's probably a scam

There’s some truth to the saying, “Nothing is sure but death and taxes.”

If the tax bill doesn’t kill you, a call from the Internal Revenue Service could.

I had one of those last week — a phone call, not a tax bill. We received a voicemail on our landline at home from an electronic voice instructing us to call “Officer Heda Gray” at the Internal Revenue Service. The only reason I have a landline anymore is because it’s cheaper to bundle the TV and Internet if you include a phone line. Consequently, since we rarely use that phone, I’m sort of lazy about checking the voicemail.

So I called the number left in the message and after I identified myself, the first thing the guy on the other end of the phone asked me was, “Do you have a criminal attorney?”

After catching my breath, I said, “Excuse me?”

The guy (I can’t call him a “gentleman” because he wasn’t) then launched into an aggressive, calmly scripted diatribe that he was calling the sheriff to come get me for “intentionally defrauding the IRS” in 2009 and 2010. There already was a lien on my property and they were freezing my assets and I would spend the next five years in jail.

OK, I’m a journalist. We are skeptical by nature and born questioning authority. I knew on some level of my subconscious that something was wrong, and in my gut, I knew it wasn’t my tax returns. We’ve had our taxes prepared by a professional for decades because math is the wrong side of my brain.

But when somebody threatens you with handcuffs and jail, all sound reasoning goes out the window.

I asked for an explanation, like why we weren’t notified of a question related to our taxes, and defended our honor over the “intentional” fraud we had supposedly committed. After any question or comment I made, the guy on the phone would raise his voice, threaten me some more and become more aggressive.

I finally hung up on the guy. That didn’t quell the thought that some cop would show up at work with handcuffs, however.

Yeah, I got suckered into a verbal volleyball game with a scammer.

More than a little unnerved, I called the company who did our taxes. I learned the IRS issued an warning on April 14 about just this type of scam. Due to the number of complaints the IRS had received at that point in time, the developing pattern indicated the calls wouldn’t cease with the tax season. And apparently, the scam is now quite prevalent in the Pacific Northwest.

So here’s the deal — the REAL deal — when it comes to identifying legitimate contact from the Internal Revenue Service. My thanks to Jim McKay at Lakeside Financial in Gresham for returning my blood pressure to normal.

n If the IRS discovers a problem with your taxes, they will always notify you by snail mail several times before they call. They will never initiate contact via email or any form of social media either. And if they do reach you by phone, they will identify themselves as “Agent Smith, ID No. 12345.”

n The IRS doesn’t use call centers to contact taxpayers. Background noise is a flag the caller isn’t from the IRS.

n I have no personal experience with this one, but McKay assured me IRS agents are always polite and calm. If you ask to speak to their supervisor, they comply without question. The guy on the phone with me spoke with a very thick accent, which made understanding him difficult at times. Three times I asked to speak with someone else. He became more threatening with each request.

n Never, ever, provide personal information over the phone to immediately rectify the claimed outstanding balance, even if threatened with jail, deportation or loss of your driver’s license. I was never asked for personal information, probably because I was too busy arguing.

According to a press release from the IRS, this particular scam doesn’t always end with one phone call. When scammers are unsuccessful the first time, they may hang up and call again under the guise of law enforcement or other legal agency. Known targets appear to be primarily the elderly and immigrants, who are being threatened with deportation. Scammers are also able to mimic the IRS’s toll-free number on Caller ID to support the bogus call.

I suspect the original call to my landline was a computer-generated call, since our home phone number has been unlisted for decades. But I can verify the call did come up on my Caller ID as being from the Internal Revenue Service.

The bottom line is that if you know you don’t owe taxes, don’t think you owe anything and receive such a call, hang up and report the call to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration at 1-800-366-4484. The IRS also is asking consumers to contact the Federal Trade Commission, by visiting FTC.gov and using the “FTC Complaint Assistant.” Make sure to add “IRS Telephone Scam” to the comments of your complaint.

Be suspicious because if the Queen of Skepticism can get sucked in, so can you.

Anne Endicott is a reporter for The Outlook.




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