EVERETT — Kathleen Banks came home Friday morning from running errands to find a message on her answering machine.
“It was hard to understand, something about owing taxes and being in trouble,” the retired Everett resident said.
She dialed the number left by the message.
A man claiming to be an agent for the federal Internal Revenue Service lit into Banks, accusing her of lying on her federal taxes, defrauding the federal government out of $2,120 and threatening to send her to prison.
“He said I would lose my car, my house, my passport, my driver’s license,” she said. “It was so intimidating and frightening.”
The man wanted information about her bank account.
“I told him, ‘I didn’t do anything,’?” the 68-year-old said. “And he yelled, ‘Don’t you interrupt me.’ It was very scary.”
The man said police had a warrant for her arrest, and she would be arrested if she didn’t cooperate.
Banks’ experience is far from unique. She was yet another target of the IRS scam.
Such scams aren’t new, but the IRS scam seems to pick up during tax season, according to the actual IRS.
The agency says there has been a rash of attempts in recent months, with scam artists threatening “police arrest, deportation, license revocation and other things,” said David Tucker, an IRS spokesman in Seattle.
The IRS almost always contacts taxpayers through the mail, not over the phone.
One Everett accountant, Barbara Knorr, said that in the past few weeks, 30 to 40 of her clients told her they had been hit by IRS scammers.
The scam starts with an incoming call to an unsuspecting target. Oftentimes, caller IDs even show the call as coming from the IRS. Once a person answers, the scammer poses as an IRS agent who is calling because the person is in trouble for tax fraud or something similar.
The scammer will typically cite personal information, such as the last four digits of the person’s Social Security number or — as happened to Banks — the target’s home address.
They then threaten serious and scary consequences such as imminent arrest, prison time and asset seizure.
But there is hope, there is a way out, the scam artist tells the target. It can all be straightened out today by paying cash over the phone.
Usually, the scam artist tells the person to get prepaid gift cards and have them read the card number over the phone.
It works like cash, and once you give the number, it is all but impossible to trace and as good as gone, law enforcement officials say.
In Banks’ case, the scammer said he needed information about her bank accountant.
“I finally got mad, and said, ‘I haven’t done anything wrong, and if you’re going to arrest me, send someone over,’” and then she hung up, Banks said.
She kept her money, but the call left her shaken.
Most people recognize the scam for what it is. So scam artists cast a wide net, relying on finding that one person in a hundred or a thousand whom they can frighten into following their instructions.
Since October 2013, people have reported being contacted in a phone scam about 290,000 times, and nearly 3,000 victims have paid more than $14 million as a result, according to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, which provides independent oversight of the IRS.
These criminals target groups they think are more likely to fall for the scam, such as elderly people, recently arrived immigrants and people who don’t speak English well, according to the IRS.
Shari Ireton, a spokeswoman for the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, said there is no reason for an unsolicited caller to ask for private information, and no one in “law enforcement or the courts will call you and ask for payment over the phone.”
Realistically, there is not much that law enforcement can do, said Charles Grass, president of the Washington Association of Accountants and owner of Grass CPA &Associates in Renton.
The scammers often are calling from overseas and make it difficult to trace them, he said.
One of his clients recently emptied her bank account in an IRS phone scam. She went to the bank to borrow more money to buy more prepaid cards, and a bank employee realized what was going on and stopped her, he said.
“I have power of attorney for her,” Grass said. “I would have received notices from the IRS.”
She filed a report with police, but he doesn’t expect she will get the money back.
“She’s out four grand,” he said.
Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @dcatchpole.
What to do
If you get a call from someone claiming to be with the IRS asking for a payment, here’s what to do:
Report the call at a government website: www.treasury.gov/tigta/contact_report_scam.shtml.
If you owe federal taxes, or think you might owe taxes, hang up and call the IRS at 800-829-1040. IRS workers can help you with your payment questions.
If you don’t owe taxes, call and report the incident to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration at 800-366-4484.
You can also file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission at FTC.gov. Add “IRS Telephone Scam” to the comments in your complaint.