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IRS tax scam a familiar oldie that keeps spreading

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When I first started writing “Scam of the Week” nearly a year ago – in fact, the one-year anniversary is next Sunday – I promised myself that I would not bore readers by writing about the same scam twice.

Today, I’m going to make an exception.

Not because there aren’t plenty of other scams out there to bring to your attention – there are – but because I continue to get phone calls and emails from readers about a topic I initially addressed last November and updated six months later in my “Scammed Etc.” blog.

And that’s the “IRS scam.”

In the past few weeks alone, reports of sundry IRS scams have surfaced across the country, including New Mexico and the nearby states of Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, Texas and Utah. A simple Google news search of “IRS tax scam” last week turned up more than 9,000 entries.

While there are numerous variations, this is the scheme where someone claiming to be from the Internal Revenue Service calls and threatens you with arrest, deportation, revocation of your driver’s license, shutting off your utilities, etc., unless you immediately make good on taxes you (don’t) owe – usually by wire transfer or prepaid debit card.

That’s pretty much what happened to a Journal colleague, who told me last week that he and his wife had fielded about a dozen calls in the past month from someone identifying himself as “Rosh” from the IRS in Washington.

The Albuquerque couple was informed they needed to resolve a “tax situation” or else the agency would place a lien on their home. To their credit, they didn’t stay on the line long enough to find out how much they “owe” or how they were supposed to pay it.

For another local resident, the threat was a bit more personal.

The Albuquerque woman called me late last month to say she had received a telephone call from someone purportedly with the IRS. When she refused to confirm her name and address – she said he already knew it – he angrily responded by telling her the sheriff would be there soon to “pick her up.”

And then there is the Albuquerque woman who told me last week that she had received a voice-mail message from someone claiming to be with the IRS’ “Tax Audit Department.”

The message said the agency had filed a legal petition for tax evasion against her and that she should return the call as soon as possible “before we execute this case by county sheriff officers.”

As I pointed out in my previous column, the IRS has been able to identify a handful of common threads related to this scam.

The caller may identify himself using a fake common name and phony badge number. He may know the last four digits of your Social Security number. Recipients may hear background sounds suggesting the calls are coming from a professional calling center – a point noted by my newsroom colleague. And if you hang up after being threatened with arrest, you may get a follow-up call from someone impersonating a police officer urging you to pay up immediately – or else.

All those are excellent points, but here’s all you really need to know in a nutshell:

  1. The IRS does not – I repeat, does not – contact taxpayers by phone or email to discuss personal tax issues. It uses old-fashioned, U.S. Postal Service mail.
  2. If you forget No. 1, then remember No. 2: The IRS will never ask you to settle outstanding taxes using prepaid debit cards or wire transfers, nor will it ask you for your credit-card number over the phone.

That first point was of particular interest to Bruce Barnaby, who emailed me back in May after he had received an email from the “Internal Revenue Service” with “Tax Refund” in the subject line.

The Albuquerque man was intrigued enough to open the accompanying attachment, which he quickly realized was a mistake. That was made crystal clear when the second item on the form asked him to jot down his Social Security number – a surefire way to put yourself at risk of identity theft.

“I consider myself well informed and very careful with my tax returns, but I did not know that the IRS does not use email. If you have not done so already, please warn your readers,” he told me.

“Furthermore, don’t open any attachment from a suspicious source. That as you probably know is the route to hacking.”

Thank you, Bruce. That’s excellent advice for any email-based scam.

Nick Pappas is assistant business editor at the Albuquerque Journal and writes a blog called “Scammed, Etc.” Contact him at npappas@abqjournal.com or 505-823-3847 if you are aware of what sounds like a scam. To report a scam to law enforcement, contact the New Mexico Consumer Protection Division toll-free at 1-800-678-1508.

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