It’s the call that’s left hundreds of thousands of American taxpayers terrified and confused: someone posing as a representative of the federal government insists they owe money to the IRS, and if they don’t pay immediately, they’ll face stiff penalties or even jail time.
According to the U.S. Treasury Department, more than 400,000 people have reported receiving the bogus calls in recent months. An estimated 3,100 unlucky people have actually handed over their hard-earned cash, though investigators believe the number could be much higher, because victims may be embarrassed to come forward.
But not Orange County resident Lori Whalen.
The longtime nurse reached out to the I-Team, hoping that telling her story may protect others from falling for the same trick.
"They just had me so frightened," Whalen recalls, thinking back to the phone call she got last month. The caller told her she owed $3,845.24 in back taxes to the IRS, and warned that the government would seize her home and 401k if she didn’t pay up immediately.
"It’s very intimidating," she said. "People become frightened."
Whalen was scared enough to race to a local supermarket, using her hard-earned savings to buy eight prepaid debit cards.
"I’m a 'fix it' person. I do whatever I have to do to fix things," she explains.
Whalen called the number given to her by the phony IRS agent, and read him the serial numbers on the cards. She realized hours after hanging up the phone that she’d been scammed.
"I was embarrassed, I felt guilty, I felt ashamed," she told the I-Team.
Now her main emotion is anger, which is why she’s determined to speak out, and warn others about the scam. Still in possession of the phone number provided by the phony agent, she also managed to vent some of her rage to the crook, texting a pointed message.
"I said ‘you’re a criminal,’" she recalls. "And I said 'criminals make mistakes, and one day you’ll be caught.'"
That’s what federal agents are hoping, despite an ongoing investigation that’s turned up few suspects "because it’s so easy to pick up the phone and call somebody," Tim Camus, deputy inspector general for IRS investigations, told the I-Team.
Camus says since the calls started spiking in 2013, agents have arrested just four people so far in connection with the crime.
"We believe that it initially [was] started by one particular group," Camus said. "Now, possibly there are others."
So far, the U.S. Treasury Department has received upward of 400,000 complaints stemming from the calls.
California taxpayers have taken the hardest hit, paying out close to $3 million.
If you believe you've been a victim of an IRS impersonation scam, report it by visiting this link.
If you have a tip on this story — or anything else — the I-Team wants to hear from you. Give us a call at 818-520-TIPS or email firstname.lastname@example.org.