OP-ED IRS Phoney Threats to Sue

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By Paul Kleyman, Special to The View

The booming voice on my telephone answering machine was intimidating and scary:  “This is the Internal Revenue Services.” The robo call told me that the IRS had filed a lawsuit against me; I should dial a stated number immediately.

Except that, the Internal Revenue Service never calls.  Ever. Federal policy is for the agency to alert taxpayers about problems or payments owed by mail.

The answering machine message on my Potrero Hill landline I received in February was one of a series of “IRS” calls threatening to sue me.  The first of those calls was especially intimidating, until I realized it had to be bogus.

As it happens, I’m the editor of the “Elders” section of the New America Media (NAM) news service. I’ve worked on many stories about financial elder abuse. Even with that background, I initially found myself unnerved by the call. Then I felt mad about the many seniors, immigrants or other vulnerable people who have never heard of these cons or about thieves “phishing” for your Social Security or credit card numbers.

According to the February 28 issue of the New York Times, IRS officials estimate that there have been more than 900,000 complaints about such calls since the fall of 2013. Among them, 5,000 victims got swindled out of more than $26 million.

Before you – or a family member – even think about answering questions, such as to “verify” your Social Security or Medicare number, which are the same, or provide credit-card data, know that you should give that information to no one. Before calling a number left on a voice message, check first with the IRS or the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) new “Pass It On” website.

Seniors are especially vulnerable. Scammers love to target landlines, because they tend to be maintained by older people, while those younger, like my daughter, only use smart phones. It’s important to tell older adults you know to beware of such calls.

The IRS website is quite clear that their agents won’t “call you to demand immediate payment” or stop you from questioning or appealing the amount they claim you owe. The IRS won’t require that you pay with a prepaid debit card or similar method. The agency cannot ask for your credit or debit card numbers on the phone. And they never threaten to have you arrested in such a call.

My colleagues at NAM have been working with the FTC to inform community media around the United States about its “Pass It On” website., http://tinyurl.com/lbex89r.  FTC chair Edith Ramirez stated at a media briefing NAM held recently in San Francisco, “Whenever consumers face calls from someone insistent on seeking a payment of money, they need to be very suspicious.” People, Ramirez said, “should pause and consult someone in their family or friends.”

The “Pass It On” website provides answers to questions about a wide range of scams.  People can phone FTC’s Division of Consumer and Business Education toll free to get additional insights.  Those who become victims of fraud, either from a business or someone claiming to be a government agent, can file a complaint on the “Pass It On” site or at 877.FTC.HELP.  The Spanish site to report fraud is ftc.gov/queja.

Additional information is available at www.consumer.ftc.gov and http://tinyurl.com/pvdzlgt.