I received a call on my home phone recently from someone who identified himself as Officer Jason Dean with the Investigative Bureau of the Department of Treasury. He said an arrest warrant had been issued in my name for failure to respond to IRS Notice CP503 — a third reminder — informing me that I owed $5,347 in back taxes. He said my home and cell phones were being traced and I should not attempt to leave the city.
“That’s ridiculous,” I said, “I never received any notices.”
“That is not my concern,” he replied. “We’re only calling you as a courtesy to inform you that you will be arrested and charged with failure to meet federal taxation requirements, malicious conduct, and theft by deception. You will be arrested within the next two hours and held in custody for six months pending an investigation.”
And just like that, I was caught in what has become the biggest tax scam in American history.
I called upstairs to my teenage son and told him to call his other mother and tell her to come home. Then I got back on the phone and asked for more details, trying to prove to myself I could dismiss this as a hoax. I asked for the address they had for me. (He had it right.) I asked for the tax year this issue allegedly stemmed from. (2011.) I asked for my Social Security number. (He said he was not permitted to give this over the phone.)
I usually do my own taxes, and I am never completely confident that I get it right. Just a few months ago, I had received notice that I owed about $700 in back taxes for income I’d forgotten to include on my 2013 return. More recently, I filed my 2014 taxes, hoping I’d done them right. But 2011? I couldn’t even remember what I’d reported.
But the man on the phone was done talking. He repeated that I must not leave the area, or I would be charged with evading the police. Then he prepared to hang up.
“Wait,” I said. “This has to be a mistake. If I owed back taxes, I would pay back taxes.”
He paused and asked, “Can you tell me truthfully you have the intention to pay any taxes you owe?”
“Yes, of course,” I said.
He said he could transfer me to another unit that might be able to help. But, he warned, they don’t have to. (It sounded ridiculous but I wasn’t quibbling.)
A moment later, another man came on the line, identifying himself as Investigator Duane Maguire. He repeated that I would be held in custody for six months while a lien was put on my property.
Thinking this all bizarre but also thinking that things do go terribly wrong for people every day, I asked what I could do.
“The payment options are closed,” he said. “This is a criminal tax fraud case.”
“There must be something,” I said, adding, “Look, I have children.”
“Let me ask you,” he said, “Have you ever been arrested before?”
Assured I had not been, he said there was one possibility — if he could obtain a 1099C form for out-of-court restitution for cancellation of debt. But this would be difficult to secure, and there was not much time.
Just then, my cell phone rang. The caller ID read 911.
I told the man on the phone the police were calling me. “911? Already?” he said. “Don’t pick it up. They are trying to trace your location to make the arrest. I will try to call them off. Just don’t pick it up.”
He then explained what I would have to do to avoid being arrested. “I cannot take any personal information from you,” he said. “But if you obtain an Instant Tax Payment voucher at the bank and give me the code on it, I can obtain the 1099C form.” This, he said, would give me 48 hours to visit an IRS office and clear things up. But, he insisted, you must stay on the phone with me at all times until the process is completed. This made no sense. But I didn’t question it.
I looked at the kitchen clock. It was 5:10 p.m. I told him I had to pick up my son from baseball practice.
“I can call you on your cell phone but you have to stay on with me while you pick up your son and go to the bank,” he said, adding: “This is a federally monitored and recorded line, and you must not discuss what is happening with anyone or you will be in violation of federal law.” I raced upstairs and told my son what was happening and that he should relay it all to his other mother, Kate.
My cell phone rang. It was 911. It rang again. It was Kate. It rang again. It was 911. It rang again. It was the alleged Investigator Maguire. Bringing the phone with me, I rushed out of the house, telling my son to come with me to drive and refusing him a moment to change out of his pajamas.
In the car, the call came over the speaker, and when the caller put me on hold a few minutes later, I used my son’s cell to call Kate.
Within twenty seconds, he came back on and asked, “Who are you talking to? I told you this is a federally monitored phone, and you cannot speak about this with anyone. You are breaking federal law.”
I kept my son’s cell line open so Kate could hear.
“Is anyone else with you?” he asked.
“No,” I said, signaling my son not to say anything.
When we arrived at the ball field, I found my eleven-year-old in the dugout and told him something had happened and there would be a voice on the car phone as we drove home but he was not to say anything. He complied until the man asked how far I was from the bank.
“What did you do?” my younger son asked. “Rob a bank or something?”
I signaled for him to be quiet, dropped my kids off at home, and drove to Wells Fargo. It was 5:40 p.m. and the bank closed at six.
I had made no decision to withdraw the $5,347. But I was definitely operating on the premise that I needed to get to the bank before it closed to keep my options open. If it was a scam, I thought, they would tell me. If it was real, I would have to access the funds that would keep me out of jail.
At a stoplight, I glanced at the texts that had come in from Kate:
“Do not take money from the bank!!! Pls call the police instead.”
“Pls speak with Marcus at the Wells Fargo before withdrawing any money.”
A moment later, I was standing before Marcus. The IRS, presumably, was still on hold.
“Kate talked to the police and is 100 percent sure this is a scam,” Marcus said. “So is my manager.”
“100 percent?” I asked.
“100 percent,” he repeated.
He walked me over to the bank manager who explained: It used to be about lottery winnings. Now it is about alleged threats from the IRS.
As I sipped a glass of water, and my rushing adrenalin began to subside, the whole thing suddenly seemed so obviously ridiculous. And it was no surprise that when I got back on the phone, the alleged Investigator Maguire, who must have sensed this fish getting away, was no longer there.
Throughout my hour-long ordeal I was very aware that it could be a scam, and that there were many things that didn’t make sense. Yet I was also deeply afraid that it could be true — that I could have made a mistake on my tax forms; that IRS forms could have been sent but never arrived; and that events could get out of control and go terribly wrong. And this combination of plausibility, fear and confusion soon drove most rational thoughts from my head.
Since the IRS-Impersonation Telephone Scam began in 2013, it has targeted more than 400,000 Americans. More than 3,000 have been successfully conned out of thousands of dollars and more, according to Congressional testimony by Timothy P. Camus, Deputy Inspector General for Investigations and Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration. The total take: approximately $15.5 million.
If anyone should have known better, it was me. I’m a somewhat experienced adult, with more than one degree from an Ivy League university. In my career as a journalist, I’ve researched the ways our minds fall for tricks like this. I’ve even reported on scams that cheated people out of big down payments on houses and tricked others into buying previously wrecked cars. But the truth is that I fell for this scam — almost completely.
And if you think that you wouldn’t, you might consider what Stanford University scam expert Martha Deevy, Director of the Financial Security Division at the University’s Center on Longevity, has to say. Contrary to popular opinion, Deevy and her colleagues have found that no one type of person tends to be vulnerable to a financial scam but, rather, certain types of people are vulnerable to certain types of scams.
For example, older women who live alone tend to be more vulnerable to confidence scams in which someone promises a large sum of money for a small fee (a fee that grows as the target is drawn in). Educated middle-aged Caucasian men who identify as financially literate tend to be vulnerable to investment frauds. And while the IRS scam is too new for researchers to have identified a typical victim profile, Deevy suggests that it is likely to be “law-abiding citizens who are confused by the IRS” — which, she adds, represents a very large number of us. In fact, when Deevy received a voicemail from an IRS scammer herself, she said she had to listen to it four times before concluding it was not real.
“These guys,” she says, “are very good.”
Unlike most scams that attempt to trigger the desire for gain, the IRS scam rests on something more deeply hardwired in the brain — the fear of loss, which Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman and others have found, is a twice as powerful motivator. And fear of the loss of personal freedom is one of the most powerful fears there is. For me, it made the chance of losing $5,347 seem a trivial risk in comparison to the possibility that I had unwittingly brought trouble on myself that could land me in jail. So I kept taking this call seriously until it was absolutely clear to me it was not.
This quality of uncertainty, says Stanford’s Deevy, is precisely what these scammers prey on. “The IRS, in particular, even in a law-abiding person, is such a mystery. You think, ‘Did I miss something? Did I screw something up? They have seven years to come after me.’ It’s not indisputable that you could have done something incorrect. It’s plausible — and that’s why people get hooked. You might know it doesn’t sound right but you also think if you are wrong about that, the stakes are so high.”
Couple all this with the seeming urgency of the threat (the police will be there in two hours), the creation of isolation (you must not talk to anyone about this), and the apparent external affirmation (repeated 911 calls), and you have the ingredients for a scam that can get to people who should know better. Indeed, for me, it almost entirely stopped me from doing what is second nature: Google it. Talk to other people. And think.
If I had done any of those things, I would have known that the IRS never calls to demand immediate payment without giving you the opportunity to question it or discuss an appeal. Nor does it threaten law enforcement. Nor does a call from 911 appear as 911 on your phone. But fear put me in an altered space that, by the following day, made the whole experience feel like a dream.
Once back to my senses, I hesitated to share my story because it is embarrassing to say one fell, or almost fell, for a scam. People are quick to judge in these situations — if only because one does not want to imagine oneself being similarly vulnerable. But in the end, I decided to swallow my pride in the hope that sharing the story might help someone else recognize this scam for what it is, before their fear triggers are similarly activated, at the risk of overwhelming usually more rational minds.