By Sunita Sohrabji
Indian Americans and other South Asian Americans are being predominantly targeted by scam artists pretending to be Internal Revenue Service officials who threaten to send out an arrest warrant if money is not paid to them immediately over the phone, the Federal Trade Commission reported in a bulletin released Mar. 21.
J. Russell George, Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, also issued a warning to consumers the same day, indicating that more than 20,000 people have been victimized by this scam and have paid out over $1 million.
â€œThis is the largest scam of its kind that we have ever seen,â€ said George, adding: â€œThe increasing number of people receiving these unsolicited calls from individuals who fraudulently claim to represent the IRS is alarming.â€
IRS and FBI spokespersons told India-West that newer immigrants seemed to be the targets of the scheme.
The calls â€“ from several different phone numbers and area codes â€” have targeted people across the country. Interestingly, the scammers themselves seem to be of South Asian origin.
Readers reported calls coming from (321) 352-6893; (202) 803-4825; (585) 310-3285; and (202) 241-2073. While the majority of numbers simply rang without being answered, the last number connected to a voicemail which said: â€œYou have reached the Investigation division of the IRS. Leave a message and we will return your call.â€
India-West used a reverse phone directory to track the callers. Several of the numbers belonged to the YMAX Corporation, distributors of Magic Jack, a device which allows users from anywhere in the world to make unlimited calls to the U.S. and Canada.
In its bulletin, the FTC explained the scheme in detail. â€œYou get a call from someone claiming to be from the government â€“ maybe the IRS, maybe a law enforcement agency, maybe the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The caller often has a foreign accent, and might even speak to you in Hindi or Urdu.â€
â€œThe caller might have information about you â€“ the last four digits of your Social Security number, for example. The caller tells you that you owe money, and that if you donâ€™t pay, many bad things will happen: deportation for you and your family, freezing your assets, jail, you name it. The caller will tell you to pay using a prepaid card, and will threaten you if you protest,â€ reported the FTC.
One of India-Westâ€™s employees, who wished to remain anonymous, was one target of this scam. Earlier this month, the employee found a message on her home phone number from â€œIRS Special Divisionâ€ agent Alex Cooper. On the message, Cooper said she and her family were under federal investigation for incorrectly filing their taxes.
Cooper threatened them that â€“ if they did not return his call â€“ â€œan officer will be at your doorstep in 30 minutes.â€ He advised them to return the call before further steps were taken by local police.
The employee told India-West that she was terrified by the threat and immediately called her husband at work, who told her not to worry, and that news of the scam had been floating around his office. The couple did not return the call, but have received two follow-up messages from the same agent, most recently on Mar. 23.
Posing as a person who had received a similar call, this reporter called the number left on the coupleâ€™s answering machine and asked to speak to Alex Cooper. The callback number was (321) 352-6893, indicating that the call originated from Brevard County, Fla.
Cooper â€“ who spoke with a distinct Indian accent â€“ identified himself as an IRS special division agent and gave a badge ID number of ALIR56396. He then asked for this reporterâ€™s home phone number.
Terrifyingly, after providing an old number that had not been used for five years, Cooper was able to trace the name and address of this reporter. Though this reporter had never received a call from Cooper or any â€œIRS agent,â€ the scam artist told the reporter that she was in violation of both IRS and USCIS laws for miscalculating the amount due on her taxes over a five-year period.
Cooper went on to say that the reporter owed the IRS $1,648, which had to be paid immediately, otherwise a warrant would be issued for her arrest. â€œPay the penalty and clear your name; otherwise, it wonâ€™t be our fault when the cops will be coming to your home,â€ he threatened.
Cooper alleged that this reporter was called because she had made or received monetary transactions to the â€œMiddle East,â€ which she had not reported. He then provided a file number for the case and said: â€œIâ€™m here to help you out.â€ The scammer said the call was also being recorded by agents in the Department of Homeland Security, as tax evasion was â€œan act of treason.â€
â€œBefore the police come to your door, do you want to clear this issue right now?â€ threatened Cooper.
This reporter then said she agreed to pay the $1,648, and was then transferred to the â€œIRS Restitution Department.â€ The transfer was picked up by Nick Rai, who identified himself as an â€œIRS Special Division agent, Badge Number 251,â€ who told this reporter that unless she paid immediately over the phone, a warrant would be issued for her arrest. Fremont Police Department officers would then be at her door, and detain her for 72 hours before transferring her to Washington, D.C., where her case would be heard by the IRS, Rai added.
Should she lose the case, all her property and financial assets would be immediately seized by the IRS, he said. Additional fines would also be levied for violating U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service laws, threatened Rai, who also spoke with a distinctly Indian accent.
Asked what immigration laws she had violated, Rai noted that this reporter was an immigrant. â€œThey are allowing you to live here, and you are violating IRS laws, so you are also violating USCIS laws,â€ Rai nebulously stated, repeating that the DHS was also recording the call.
He backed off when the reporter informed him that she had lived in the country for 42 years, but still insisted that the financial obligation must be met immediately.
When asked about a payment arrangement, Rai immediately agreed, asking how much could be paid off within an hour. This reporter asked if she could pay $100 a month towards her debt.
â€œAre you crazy?â€ stated Rai incredulously, demanding that at least $500 must immediately be paid to keep the police at bay. When the reporter said she could not immediately obtain $500, Rai abruptly stated: â€œYou are refusing to cooperate. An officer will be at your door in a couple of hours.â€ He then hung up.
A Fremont, Calif., police department spokeswoman told this reporter that no warrant had been issued for her arrest. Fremont police have received many similar calls in recent months, she said, adding that an investigation team is following up with local victims of the scheme.
IRS spokesman Raphael Tulino told India-West that he had done interviews with many victims all over the country and added that the agency has seen mostly new immigrants being victimized by the scam. The IRS and TIGTA have been investigating the case for at least eight months, he said.
The IRS is never going to demand immediate payment over the phone, emphasized Tulino. People who owe taxes may get multiple letters in the mail, and â€“ at some point â€“ may get a phone call, but usually only after several letters.
The IRS will never threaten police action over the phone, Tulino emphasized.
TIGTA spokesman David Barnes told India-West that the scheme was â€œan ongoing law enforcement matter,â€ but declined to state whether the FBI was involved. Barnes also declined to state whether victims were subscribers of a single phone company, such as AT&T or Vonage, or whether calls were being made solely to land-lines.
Barnes advised readers who receive suspicious calls to hang up immediately.
If the person does owe federal taxes, they can call the IRS at 800-829-1040. If the person does not owe taxes, they can contact TIGTA at www.treasury.gov/tigta or call 800-366-4484.