Threat by IRS? It may be scam

If the IRS is calling and demanding you pay up or else, it’s probably not the IRS.

In what officials in Washington are calling the largest of its kind, a sophisticated phone scam has swindled 20,000 people nationally out of a combined $1 million.

Scammers are armed with enough information and technological know-how to bilk taxpayers, often convincing unsuspecting victims because they can recite the last four digits of their Social Security number, officials said.

The call that comes in appears to be -- at least on caller ID -- from the Internal Revenue Service. Callers claim to be from the IRS and tell people they owe taxes that must be paid immediately.

Those who refuse are threatened with arrest, deportation or loss of their business or driver’s license.


They often call a second time -- again cloaking phone numbers to look official -- pretending to be the police or a representative from the Department of Motor Vehicles. To round out the scam, they also send official-looking emails that further fool victims.

Payments have been made with pre-paid debit cards or through a wire transfer, payment methods the IRS does not use.

“This is the largest scam of its kind that we have ever seen,” said J. Russell George, the Treasury inspector general for tax administration.

“If someone unexpectedly calls claiming to be from the IRS and uses threatening language if you don’t pay immediately, that is a sign that it really isn’t the IRS calling,” George said.

The agency said that the IRS usually contacts those who owe taxes by mail, not by phone. People are advised to hang up and call the IRS at (800) 829-1040 for any questions regarding unpaid taxes. Those who want to report an incident can call the Treasury’s inspector general at (800) 366-4484.

Alessandro Acquisti, a Carnegie Mellon University economist who studies privacy, said Americans often believe that Social Security numbers are well-guarded and sensitive pieces of information.

The reality, however, is they are not. Because these numbers are often used by businesses and organizations to verify people’s identities, Acquisti said it doesn’t take a scammer much effort to find the last four digits of someone’s Social Security number.

“Over the years, since their inception in the 1940s ... they’ve been used for more and more purposes by more and more diverse entities, each using them slightly differently,” he said. “Scammers are exploiting an inherent weakness in a society that uses Social Security numbers this way.”

Public records that are easily searchable online also make it easier for scammers to target people, but the key is those four digits.

“It’s an example of social engineering,” Acquisti said. “Showing knowledge of information which some individuals believe to be sensitive is a way to convince a person you are legitimate.”


Twitter: @rljourno