The Internal Revenue Service says it's seeing a surge in phone scams. More than 5,000 victims have been duped out of $26.5 million since late 2013. It's hard to know what exactly con artists are thinking when they target their victims. But now, we know what they are saying.
Before we get started, keep this in mind: The IRS says it doesn't call about outstanding taxes without first mailing you a bill.
Pindrop Security, an Atlanta-based company that investigates phone fraud, recently gave NPR a recording. It's a grueling conversation, more than an hour long, between an active fraud ring and a presumed victim, who is in reality a Pindrop researcher.
Pindrop set up honeypots — dummy phone numbers, some of which are entered into online raffles (win a free iPhone, anyone?) that are run by criminal rings. Pindrop has traced at least 28 fraud incidents to this specific ring.
According to phone metadata, the fake IRS call center is based in a Seattle suburb. But that could just be a proxy. Pindrop researchers say the ring is hard to pinpoint because it has tools to hide the physical location and the money trail.
While the recording is a little hard to understand at times, it clearly illustrates how these scams, on a hunt for quick cash, exploit everyday resources like MoneyGram or Wal-Mart — and people's deepest fears.
Below are five key parts of the recorded conversation between the fraudsters, posing as IRS agents, and the target, who is secretly a Pindrop researcher.
An unidentified "IRS" man speaks with "Emma Lauder" — a covert Pindrop researcher whose real name we cannot disclose because that would blow her cover.
The agent tells Emma Lauder that his office has audited her taxes — from 2009 to 2014 — and there's been a miscalculation. She owes money. The local authorities with an arrest warrant will come to her home any minute now. Her property will be seized, and she faces federal imprisonment of up to five years.
This is not a fun call to get. But the punch line is how much she owes: $1,986.73. All of these threats are for an amount less than $2,000.
The call center operator wants cash. And he guides his target through what is clearly a routine drill, playing on fear and secrecy. He warns her to not disclose to anyone at work — not her boss, not anyone — that she is in trouble.
The fraudster tells the target that the federal government accepts only Western Union or MoneyGram and that she must pay at Wal-Mart.
Lauder asks a clever question about how much cash, exactly, she should withdraw from the ATM, given that the machine gives only $20 bills and the amount she owes is specific to a cent.
The agent's response is, "Whatever, miss. It's OK. Just take $1,980 or something like that."
She is told to make the payment to a man named Gabriel Porter in Boston.
The tone of the call really changes — from helpful to cruel — when the target confirms payment. She asks for a receipt and a few of the so-called IRS agents begin to taunt her.
This section gets creepy. One man tells her "You can, you know, take a bath. Relax. Relax. Cold water. Cold water." They refer to her private parts and tell her to go look in the toilet, find the receipt there.
WARNING: The following audio contains offensive language.
If you get a strange message, one way to handle it is to not hand over information right away. Hang up and call the IRS directly at 800-829-1040.