New Twists Added Daily to Old Telephone Scams

Your phone rings and you answer it. An authoritative voice at the other end says he or she is an official with the Internal Revenue Service and wants you to know the IRS is about to file a legal action against you for unpaid taxes. What?! Your heart may skip a beat and your blood pressure certainly rises.

However, the person tells you can stop the action by making a tax payment, let’s say $500, via a legitimate-sounding mailing address, or a wire transfer or with the help of your credit card number. The caller will make officious references to legitimate IRS webpages and the person may even volunteer their badge number. Of course, the payment and other personal financial information winds up in the hands and pockets of fraudsters.

A New Twist

This is an old scam with a new twist. The IRS sent out its first phone fraud alert in October 2013 and just sent out another one June 15, 2017. The new warning comes in response to increasing knowledge among consumers that the first contact from the IRS is a formal letter, never a phone call.

So now, according to the recent IRS notice, the fraudster claims that two certified letters were mailed to the taxpayer but returned as undeliverable and demands an immediate payment, or else. It’s completely bogus, but this can be scary stuff, especially if, like many young people trying to save a buck, you prepared your tax return yourself by an online tax filing service.

And it’s a big scam. In February 2016 the IRS announced that between October 2013 and January 2016 the agency received reports of roughly 896,000 fraudulent phone contacts and became aware of more than 5,000 people who collectively paid more than $26.5 million as a result of the threatening phone calls.

If you receive one of these calls, contact the IRS to report the call by going to the IRS Report Phishing and Online Scams web site. If you’re not sure about your tax situation, you can check your current IRS tax record at View Your Tax Account Information or call your local IRS office. For additional background, you can also visit the “Tax Scams/Consumer Alerts” page at IRS.gov.

“Can You Hear Me?”

Another telephone fraud is the “can you hear me” scam, as recently reported by CBS MoneyWatch. This is pretty sneaky, especially if you are not aware of it. Here’s how it works.

You receive a phone call from someone asking, “Can you hear me?” You say “yes” and the caller hangs up. You are now a potential fraud victim. That affirmative response is recorded by the fraudster and used to authorize unwanted charges on a phone or utility bill or on a purloined credit card.

These criminals are sneaky, so the question doesn’t have to be “Can you hear me?” It could be “Are you the lady (or man) of the house?” “Do you pay the household telephone bills?” “Are you the homeowner?” Or any number of similar yes/no questions.

A safe and reasonable response to any of these questions is to immediately hang up. “I know that people think it’s impolite to hang up, but it’s a good strategy,” states Susan Grant, director of consumer protection for the Consumer Federation of America. The Federation provides consumers with a wealth of information about different types of scams and which organizations and agencies to contact to report fraud.

A Scam a Day

There seems to be a new or reworked phone fraud that hits consumers every day. While there are hundreds, here is a rundown of some of the more pervasive scams reported by law enforcement agencies that in some way demand money from the fraud victim:

Family member in an accident. This scam is an oldie. The scammer tells their victim that a family member or relative has been involved in an accident or is in some type of difficult and dangerous situation and money is needed immediately to help them.

Microsoft computer issue. You receive a phone call from an individual who states that they are from Microsoft and that there is an issue with your computer. The scammer will try to convince the person to go onto their computer and visit a certain website that has nothing to do with Microsoft. If successful, this allows the criminal to access personal information that can be used for identity theft or other nefarious purposes.

Utility company fees. You receive a phone call from a utility company stating that you owe money on your bill and if you don’t pay it off immediately, your utility service will be shut down.

The old mysterious-text-message-from-a-bank trick. You receive a text message from an unknown number stating that verification is needed on your account. The scammers are hoping that message will make the target nervous and contact the phone number provided in the text. This will give the fraudster information that will most likely result in unauthorized debits to your checking account or credit card.

The best defense against phone fraud is being informed. Other sources that can help you keep up with the ever growing list of telephone scams are the FBI Telephone Fraud Schemes and Callersmart.com. For cell phone scams, check out scambusters.