By Sabina Mollot
Earlier this week, a Peter Cooper Village resident received a robo-call that supposedly came from the Internal Revenue Service. The mechanical female voice that came through his answering machine informed the resident that he was being sued. To get more information about the legal action, the resident was instructed to call a number that appeared to be from a line in Washington state.
A day after the man shared this story with a neighbor, Marcia Robinson, Robinson received an eerily similar call, this one with a number that appeared to be local to Washington, DC. She then phoned a neighbor in her building to tell her about it, and that neighbor informed Robinson that she too had been contacted with the same message, and believed it was a scam.
“None of us called back,” said Robinson. Their caution was fortunate, since, according to a spokesperson for the IRS, such calls are indeed a scam, and one that is being run with more and more frequency, nation-wide.
IRS rep Patricia Svarnas explained, “It’s a huge scam going on right now and it’s one of our biggest issues.”
While the perpetrators are unknown, what is known is that they are overseas, using technology to alter their caller ID. The numbers will appear to be local, usually from Washington, DC, “to make it look official.”
The callers, once on the phone with an intended target, will demand payment on the spot, and sometimes even threaten to sue, arrest or deport the person or put liens on the victim’s property.
“That’s not how we do business,” said Svarnas. “We do not threaten you and we do have payment plans.”
Other times the scammers will try to trick victims into sharing personal information by telling them they’re owed refunds.
Svarnas added that unlike the IRS, the scammers will suggest that people make payments for money owed using a prepaid credit card or a debit card. While the IRS will sometimes call people, Svarnas said by the time people are called they have already been made aware of an issue via mailed letters. So far, thousands of people have been affected and millions of dollars have been lost, with no way to get victims’ money back.
Initially, said Svarnas, the scam was more targeted.
“They were preying on vulnerable populations, seniors, people with low English proficiency. Now it’s phone lists and they go through them at random.”
The IRS has put information about the scam online, which can be found here.
Robinson meanwhile thought there should be more of an effort to get the word out.
“You do this to a senior and they panic,” she said.
Meanwhile, a quick Google search of the number she was instructed to call, 202-738-1580, revealed it as a scam, at least according to numerous posters on an online forum at 800notes.com. Various commenters described being called by this number by someone claiming to be from the federal government, offering $9,000 grants. But first, callers were told, they’d have to wire a $250 deposit for the funds.
“Free $$ from the government because I was a good citizen,” wrote a user named Lisa. “I am a good citizen… But not a stupid one!!”