Banking & Finance

Tax Season Brings IRS Scams, BBB, DeWine Warn

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – As taxpayers prepare to file their annual returns, they’re likely to receive phone calls purporting to be from the Internal Revenue Service. They would be well-advised to hold off on acting on such calls because a con artist, not an IRS agent, likely placed the call, say the Better Business Bureau and state attorney general’s office.

The IRS scam has been around for about two years, reports Melissa Ames, director of BBB services for the Better Business Bureau of Columbiana, Mahoning & Trumbull Counties. Ames’ aunt texted her a year ago to report that she received such a call, she recalls.

“People have been telling us that they have been told that they might have to go to jail, that they have to pay money to the IRS,” Ames says.

The scam is among the most prevalent and costly scams the office of the Ohio attorney general, Mike DeWine, has highlighted. Hundreds of taxpayers have called his office’s help center to report it. In some cases, consumers reported they sent between $2,000 and $28,000 to the con artists.

“We always warn people that if the IRS is going to contact you, the very first thing they do is send you a letter. And if you have any questions or concerns, you can contact the IRS directly,” Ames cautions. “Do not use the phone number that the person calling is giving because you’re just calling the scammer right back.”

The IRS scam is just one of several scams going on. The local BBB gets 35 to 40 calls each day related to scams by phone, online and the U.S. Postal Service, Ames says. DeWine’s office reports getting about 1,400 complaints last year about phone scams.

No longer do thieves have to resort to robbing a bank for cash, DeWine says. “Every day, there’s a scammer who picks up the phone, tells a big lie and tries to get money from someone in Ohio,” he remarks. “They just pickup the phone, tell a very detailed, believable story — and smart Ohioans all over the state fall for their scam.”

Adds Ames, “What we’re hearing across the board is people are receiving phone calls, whether it’s the IRS, whether it’s Microsoft tech-support scams, whether you won a cruise. It’s across the board – all demographics – and people are receiving them at home, on their cell phone and, quite frankly, people are irritated.”

With the return of warmer weather BBB is seeing the related return of home improvement scams, Ames says. “We’ve had a lot of ice, a lot of snow, and as it starts to warm up and starts to melt, we’re going to se a lot of home improvement issues,” she says. She advises property owners to contact BBB to learn the reputation of the contractor before they sign a contract.

“What we’re seeing a lot of is the spoofing,” Ames says. “Spoofing” is the practice where a telemarketer masks the out-of-town number he using to place the call by using a local exchange.

In addition to the IRS scam, some of the major scams statewide involve:

  • Sweepstakes scams where the target is informed he has won an international lottery or sweepstakes but has to send money to cover processing fees and other costs.
  • Grandparent scams where the con artist poses as a grandchild in trouble and texts the grandparent he needs to have money wired or a prepaid card. The grandparent is asked to furnish his credit card number.
  • A tech support service seeking remote access to the victim’s computer by claiming the target has won a federal grant but must send a fee to cover processing costs.

The state has a phone scams checklist available here.

People are aware of both online and phone scams, but “the phone call has some immediacy to it, where people are more prompted to act,” Ames says, where people are more likely to see something isn’t quite right with an email. In some cases, lonely senior keep the scammer on the line and encourage them to call back.

“We always recommend that that you do not interact with the person who is calling you,” Ames says. Even responding to a request to push a button to get taken off a call list alerts the scammer that it is an active line and not a fax line, for example.

If a caller purports to be from the individual’s bank or credit card company and wants to be contacted immediately, “Call your local branch or use the phone number that is on the back of your credit card,” she warns, “because again you don’t want to call that scammer back.”

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.