The voice message left on our home phone sounded very convincing. Authoritative and with a hint of menace, the caller said that the IRS Crime Investigations Unit was about to file charges for tax evasion against us -- but if we called them back right away and could explain a few things to the caller, perhaps our imminent prosecution could be averted. But only if we called him back right away. The number that showed up on my caller ID was 202 864-1255; you might want to take note of it.
Being a veteran of a couple of real IRS audits, I didn't panic. Among the things my audits taught me is that the IRS, as a rule, prefers not to actually use phones -- even on those occasions when you want to talk to them. No, they prefer snail mail for any sort of direct contact with taxpayers; perhaps it's a solidarity pact the IRS has with the US Postal Service to help keep the post office on life support?
Anyway, even the IRS' website tells you they don't like talking to you on the phone: "The IRS will always send taxpayers a written notification of any tax due via the U.S. mail. The IRS never asks for credit card, debit card or prepaid card information over the telephone." So I knew this wasn't really the IRS calling me for a phone chat. I also knew that I hadn't evaded any taxes.
Still, I played the phone message for my husband.
"Call them back and see what they want," he suggested. I didn't, because I already knew what they wanted: my money and/or my identity. I googled the number and sure enough, it's been linked to phone scammers.
Phone scams that use the IRS' name are apparently running pretty rampant, even though we are well past tax season. So just to be absolutely clear, the IRS won't call you. It won't text you or email you either. It also won't reach out to you Facebook or any other social media channel. And if someone claiming to be representing the IRS is doing any of this, the IRS asks that you report it to them at email@example.com.
But the phony IRS is just part of the larger problem. Much more annoying than any one single phone scam is the proliferation of phone scamming in general. And while the elderly may be the most vulnerable -- especially when the scammers prey on the idea that perhaps the victim just "forgot" to pay this bill, or "forgot" they wanted the carpet cleaner to call them back -- scamming people is clearly a big industry.
I would have to note: If it wasn't working, people still wouldn't be doing it. So for as obviously fraudulent as some of these scams appear, someone is falling for them.
Just last week, I was trying to work from home and was interrupted by about 6 scam calls inside about an hour. Some pretended they knew me; one insisted that he was calling because I had asked him to; and several dropped the call when a live person answered. All of them got the phone slammed in their ear, but as a rule, nothing seems to stop the daily onslaught of calls -- certainly not being on the Do Not Call Registry, the FTC's feeble and ineffectual solution. There are also equally ineffective state registries. If you wanted, you could spend all day reporting scam callers to registries and your phone would likely still keep ringing off the hook with phony charities wanting your money and solar panel salesmen who insist you told them to call.
The only reason we keep the land line is that our cell phone reception in our house is so spotty and on occasion, we need to make a call from the house. But of late, we are questioning the wisdom (and need) to keep our land line. We certainly don't need it if all it really does is make the jobs of scammers easier for them.
Which got me thinking: If a toothless Do Not Call Registry is the best the government can come up with to protect us from scammers, maybe we should all instead be speaking with our wallets to the Big Phone Carrier industry. How is it they can't figure out some technology to stop it? On some levels, they are co-conspirators to the problem and maybe they should be busted for doing so little to protect their customers? Verizon, Sprint, AT&T: I'm ready to start a Do Not Patronize Registry.