IRS Impersonators Target
By: Tom Holden
The Wall Street Journal, July 17, 2002
You can't be too careful.
When someone claims to work for the Internal Revenue
Service and starts firing sensitive questions at you, do a little homework
before answering. Make sure that person really does work for the IRS.
Why? Treasury Department officials say that clever
con artists posing as IRS agents have duped unsuspecting victims,
especially the elderly. In
some cases, crooks have stolen money from their victims. In other cases,
IRS impersonators have extracted valuable information, such as Social
Security numbers or the whereabouts of an ex-spouse, from taxpayers who
believed they were cooperating with their government.
These and other sad tales emerge from material
unearthed by the U.S. Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration,
an oversight organization often referred to by its acronym, TIGTA. Among
its jobs is investigating fraud, waste, mismanagement and abuse in IRS
programs and operations. It also probes charges that people have
impersonated IRS agents.
While the impersonator problem is far from an
epidemic, there have been enough cases that Inspector General David C.
Williams testified about the subject at a Senate Finance Committee hearing
earlier this year. He also said that since April 2001, TIGTA has launched
158 investigations involving impersonation.
Some crooks have gone to great lengths to dupe their
victims. Some have used the words "Internal Revenue Service" on
a company letterhead, or they have flashed "fraudulent
credentials," Mr. Williams said.
Impersonation is both a stand-alone crime and a tool
used by scamsters in connection with other types of crimes.
"Impersonators are most often con artists, bill collectors,
telemarketers, private investigators or disgruntled ex-spouses," Mr.
Fraudsters often work alone, but sometimes they're
employed by companies who track down people who owe them money, Mr.
Williams said. "In order to illegally obtain personal information,
the impersonators give the impression that they are from the IRS and have
money that belongs to the individual they are attempting to find. In other
instances, impersonators may attempt to obtain personal information, such
as a Social Security number. That number can then be used to steal the
identity of a person, collect money, or locate someone.
Some impersonators have been caught and have received
lengthy prison sentences. A TIGTA report says a federal grand jury charged
one individual with 34 felony counts, including violations for
impersonating an IRS special agent, identity theft, false possession of
identification documents and possession of an altered Social Security
The individual pled guilty to one charge of bank
fraud and one charge of interrupting interstate commerce, in exchange for
a plea agreement with federal prosecutors, the report stated. The
individual was sentenced to 78 months in prison and was required to pay
$240,000 in restitution, the report said.
How to Spot a Scammer
Checking out the credentials of someone claiming to
represent the IRS may sound simple, but actually it can sometimes be
tricky. There's no nation-wide 800 number you can call at the IRS or
Treasury, and the IRS Web site won't help, either.
But there are some steps you can take.
An IRS spokesman says that in "the vast
majority" of cases, a taxpayer should receive a letter from the IRS
before hearing directly from an agent. So be especially wary of first-time
calls or surprise visits from someone you've never heard from before.
But that isn't always the case. For example, IRS
criminal investigators may show up without prior warning, or they may try
contacting you without having sent a letter first. Whatever the case, ask
for the employee's name, badge number and supervisor's name. If they're
really legitimate, they shouldn't mind your checking to verify their
Meanwhile, never reveal sensitive information,
especially Social Security numbers. "A real IRS representative should
have your Social Security number," the IRS spokesman says.
Another solution: Pass the buck to a trusted tax
adviser, such as a lawyer, accountant or "enrolled agent," a tax
professional licensed to represent you at the IRS. "We have contacts
here at the local office, and we can call right away to verify the
identity of any agent that shows up," says Gerard E. Voss, an
enrolled agent and the owner of B&G Accounting & Tax Service in
Hazel Park, Mich.
"I always advise clients not to talk to the IRS.
Period," says Richard M. Lipton, a Chicago lawyer at the law firm
McDermott, Will & Emery. "The first words out of your mouth
should be: 'Talk to my lawyer, or my accountant, or enrolled agent.' You
shouldn't talk to the IRS because you're not trained to do that. Your
If you're still not satisfied by the investigator's
credentials, or have some reasonable basis for your suspicions, contact
TIGTA at 800-366-4484. Or write: Treasury Inspector General for Tax
Administration, PO Box 589, Ben Franklin Station, Washington DC
20044-0589. TIGTA says the information you provide is kept confidential,
and you may remain anonymous.
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