Beware Of Tax Scams

With the tax filing season upon us, criminals posing as IRS officials are increasing their attempts to defraud taxpayers, with seniors a particular target. It is my hope that this column will provide seniors, as well as their families and caregivers, the information they need to avoid becoming a victim of these cruel scams.

As Chairman of the Senate Aging Committee, I oversee the Committee’s fraud hotline (toll-free, 1-855-303-9470), which has helped shed light on a number of these scams, particularly phone scams. During the past few weeks, the number of reports of fraudsters who call seniors pretending to be IRS officials has soared. Through this scam, of which there are multiple variations, criminals generally accuse the potential victim of owing back taxes and penalties (most often erroneously). They threaten retaliation, such as home foreclosure and even arrest, if immediate payment is not made by a certified check, credit card, or pre-paid debit card.

In one recent scam, a senior and disabled veteran in Maine received a call from someone claiming to be a U.S. Department of Treasury official. The caller told the would-be victim that he owed $2,400 in back taxes and that if he did not immediately return the call of this Treasury “official,” he would be arrested. The scammer eventually provided instructions to the would-be victim that included withdrawing money from his account, or purchasing a pre-paid debit card to be turned over to the con artist. Fortunately, the would-be victim became suspicious of the situation and reported it to the Aging Committee Fraud Hotline. But this scam is prevalent, and the tactics are typical of many tax scams.

In another case, a Maine woman recently reported that she had received a letter in the mail from “Sun Trust Financial Services” in Long Beach, California, indicating that she had won $250,000 in an international sweepstakes. The letter included an enclosed check for $4,650 for “processing fees.” She was instructed to deposit the check at her bank and then to immediately mail a certified check for the same amount to the address on the letter. Had this individual fallen for the scam, she would have later learned that the enclosed check was fraudulent, the company was a hoax, and she would have lost $4,650.

With such scams reaching epidemic proportions across the country, the IRS has released several tips to help taxpayers identify suspicious calls that may be part of a scam.

• The IRS will never call a taxpayer to demand immediate payment, nor will the agency call about taxes owed without first having mailed a bill to the taxpayer.

• The IRS will never demand that a taxpayer pay taxes without giving him or her the opportunity to question or appeal the amount claimed to be owed.

• The IRS will never ask for a credit or debit card number over the phone.

• The IRS will never threaten to send local police or other law enforcement to have a taxpayer arrested.

• The IRS will never require a taxpayer to use a specific payment method for taxes, such as a prepaid debit card.

Should you receive a suspicious call, here are some tips on what you should do. In addition to calling the Aging Committee Fraud Hotline, seniors can report potential instances of scams or fraud to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) at 1-800-366-4484 or at www.tigta.gov.

The IRS also advises that if you receive a call from someone claiming to be from the IRS and you believe that you may owe taxes, you should call the IRS at 1-800-829-1040. IRS workers can help taxpayers with payment issues. The IRS has also advised taxpayers that the agency does not use unsolicited email, text messages, or any social media to discuss personal tax issues.

And here is something else seniors and all taxpayers can do if they suspect they are being targeted by a phone scam: simply hang up on the caller. Remember, the IRS will never call a taxpayer demanding immediate payment.

Putting a stop to scams, such as these IRS phone scams, is among my highest priorities as Chairman of the Senate Aging Committee. The committee’s investigations this year are building upon our important work of the last Congress. For example, through its hearings and investigations, the Aging Committee brought to light the “Jamaican lottery” phone scam, which targeted seniors in Maine and throughout the Northeast. Through this scam, fraudsters contact a would-be victim and tell them that have won the Jamaican lottery, or a new car. Victims are directed to send a “fee” to process their winnings, and that their winnings will be sent to them once the processing fee is received. But of course, the “winnings” never arrive and more demands for money follow.

As a result of the Aging Committee’s work, several arrests were made in connection with the Jamaican lottery scam.

The Aging Committee also has investigated and brought to light the “Grandparent Scam,” where scam artists claim to be a victim’s grandchild or other relative who is in trouble and in need of money. And the committee held a hearing on precious metal investment scams that also have targeted seniors.

Unfortunately, phone scams by ruthless individuals who want to defraud seniors out of their hard-earned savings are all too abundant. Diligence and information are among our most valuable allies in confronting this growing problem. Please keep the Aging Committee Fraud Hotline toll-free number handy (1-855-303-9470), and don’t hesitate to call if you think you may have been targeted by a scam.