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IRS phone scam targets seniors, vulnerable

Special to the Herald

Be honest. You're afraid of getting audited by the Internal Revenue Service.

Bad guys know you're frightened. Con men now pretend to be IRS representatives or officers in telephone scams that are actively turning your IRS audit fears into cash.

IRS telephone scammers start by identifying themselves -- with a false name and IRS badge number, of course -- and informing future victims that they owe outstanding income tax. To win trust, the supposed agent inserts personal information, gained from the internet, into the conversation. Then, after establishing credibility, the "agent" demands payment for overdue, and absolutely unnecessary, income tax.

Senior citizens, people who don't speak English as their first language, and other unfortunate taxpayers are being targeted. IRS scammers are ruthlessly intimidating these people to pay bogus tax bills immediately. For some with immigration issues, the scammer might say, "Pay immediately or we'll deport you back to (for instance) Honduras." Scammers routinely threaten police arrest or other hostile action, like threatening to sue, during the telephone shakedown.

Many law-abiding taxpayers, with what CPAs call "clean" tax returns, are also getting targeted. These individuals, ironically, usually pay their taxes on time and in full, and they're not traditional IRS audit targets because they do the right thing.

IRS charlatans are tech-savvy and are actively using robocalls, emails, texting and social media. They know how to use computers, TracFones, and "Skype-like" calling systems to confuse caller ID devices. Scammers often call from offshore and use devices that cause caller ID systems to falsely display IRS, for example, to conceal their real identifies and locations -- and make someone think the IRS is "really" calling.

Scammers often wear down their marks by calling several times a day. And if, by chance, someone isn't home, they leave firm messages saying it's urgent to call the bad guys, posing as IRS agents, back. The phone calls state, erroneously, that there is a time-sensitive IRS matter and you need to return the call or face legal action.

Why can't the government do anything about this? For starters, the originating phone numbers lurk in the darkest areas of cyberspace. Locations are so well hidden and IP addresses change so rapidly that they don't offer a trail for authorities.

Take comfort in knowing that the real IRS, when it comes to collections, is well organized and uses definite protocols. The IRS is relentless when it comes to collections, but their agents, in my experience, act very professional. Angry shakedown calls are not how the IRS operates because they have many other powerful tools, like garnishing wages, to entice someone to pay back taxes. Consider:

IRS uses the mail for bills and correspondence concerning amounts owed. IRS correspondence allows you to appeal and correct errors.

IRS doesn't make you pay taxes owed, in early audit stages, with a specific payment method. Beware of ultimatums to pay your tax bill with a prepaid debit card.

Signing tax documents is usually part of IRS payment programs. IRS does not ask for credit or debit cards numbers over the telephone in initial encounters.

Don't fall for threats like, "We'll instruct the police or FBI to arrest you because you owe us money." The IRS would much rather have payments or payment program for taxes owed, than send someone to jail.

If you get a suspicious call, contact your local police department so they can check the telephone numbers for validity. Should you have real IRS tax issues, call the IRS at 800-829-1040.

Jim Germer is a Bradenton CPA and financial adviser at Cetera Financial Specialists, LLC, member FINRA/SIPC.