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IRS Impersonators Target
Unsuspecting Taxpayers

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. Williams said.

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 number.

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 identity.

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 adviser is."

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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