Todd Guild, Nov. 21: To avoid scams, exercise caution


By TODD GUILD

I don’t think it is a stretch to say that most people in the world are decent folks with good hearts who want to support themselves and their families.

But there is also a rotten undercurrent flowing beneath this decency, full of rascals and reprobates who would target our goodness and take advantage of our naivety.

Our task is to recognize this malevolency and, if not battle it, at least to avoid it. Perhaps more difficult is finding it in our hearts to understand the motive behind such awfulness and, maybe, to forgive.

This is what I was thinking Monday when I received four calls from numbers I didn’t recognize. As a rule I do not answer these calls, and my instinct in this case turned out to be sound.

In identical messages, a robotic voice from the “IRS” stated that I was in arrears with my taxes, and threatened me with arrest if I did not call within 24 hours.

“Once it get expired after that you will be taken under custody by the local cops,” the robotic female voice said.

The voice told me that there were four “serious allegations” against me, and urged me to call a number.

I knew immediately this was a scam, and was not concerned.

But I called the number they provided in an attempt to outline the scam, in hopes others can recognize such calls for what they are.

Perhaps the most disconcerting thing about the phone call that followed is that the person who answered — a man with a thick South Asian accent who identified himself as “Brandon Nelson” — knew my home address.

I was unconcerned, however, as nearly all of these scam calls come from countries such as India. Moreover, this information is easily found via a Google search.

“Brandon” told me that the tax returns I filed from 2013-17 do not match IRS records and that I owe $2,186.

Failure to pay would result in my arrest, the freezing of my bank accounts and, for some reason, the cancellation of my driver’s license.

But the news was not all grim. In fact, I could take care of the problem immediately.

And so it was that “Brandon” transferred me to “Head of Claims” “Brian Johnson,” who also spoke with a heavy accent and told me not to worry; I could make a minimum $500 payment, and then take care of the rest in monthly installments.

Making that payment, “Brian” told me, would be a piece of cake.

He explained that there are 35 stores in our country that “collaborate” with the U.S. government on the “Electronic Federal Tax Payment Voucher System.”

In the IRS tax debt scam, victims are typically told to go to stores such as Target or Wal-Mart and purchase some type of gift card. They then read the card numbers to the scammers, which gives them full access to the money.

All this came with an interesting caveat: because I was under investigation, I was told — falsely — that my accounts were frozen and I could not use my debit card or credit card. I was also instructed to stay on the line with “Brian” as I went to one of the stores.

Both of these are ways to avoid questions from alert bank tellers and store employees who may recognize the scam and alert victims.

At this point, I was unwilling to devote any more time to such nonsense, so I told “Brian” that I was a reporter working on a story about IRS scams.

He hung up when I asked him whether he wanted to say anything about the scam.

There are some important points to consider when receiving these types of calls.

This is according to the IRS: “Hang up the phone. Know that the IRS would never call to threaten or demand immediate tax payment. The agency offers taxpayers a chance to appeal any amount in question and offers numerous ways of resolving a tax liability.”

California Franchise Tax Board spokesman Dan Tahara urged serious skepticism when receiving a call about a previously unknown tax debt.

More importantly, neither the IRS nor the Franchise Tax Board calls up consumers threatening arrest, Tahara said.

Santa Cruz County District Attorney paralegal Angela Derendinger also advised not to engage with the scammers as I did. Let unknown calls go to voicemail and ignore them.

As for “Brandon” and “Brian,” we can safely assume that they live in some developing nation, where they join millions of people suffering from crushing poverty in overcrowded places poorly equipped to help them.

Imagine the opportunity to make $500 with no more labor than a 20-minute phone call. Now imagine weighing this deception against the looks on the faces of your hungry children.

These people, like us, are desperate to support the families they love. And so while I don’t support their activities, I cannot begrudge them for taking the opportunity to make easy money from strangers in distant countries.

What I can do is to urge everyone to be skeptical when anyone calls asking for money.

It is up to us to put an end to scam calls. Educate yourself. Inform yourself.

As long as people are falling for these scams, they will not stop.

•••

For information, visit the IRS website at bit.ly/2fSCvuC.

Advertisement

More In Opinion