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McCaskill says tax scammers target seniors with phone calls

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., says she learned a lot from her unsuccessful run for governor in 2004.
Sen. McCaskill's Flickr page

Hundreds of thousands of senior citizens in Missouri, Illinois and across the U.S., have fallen victim to a high-tech phone scam during this tax season, prompting the Senate Special Committee on Aging to conduct a tax-day hearing on the matter.

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., the committee’s ranking member, said Wednesday that politically popular cuts to the IRS budget have contributed to the problem. “With every budget cut, that’s longer people are on hold, that’s fewer people to investigate criminals and that’s fewer people to serve the public.”

Another complication is the fact that many of the tech-savvy criminals route their calls through computers in foreign countries. “So, we have to work with foreign countries in terms of trying to capture these criminals,” McCaskill said. In such cases, jurisdiction problems can add time and complexity to bringing charges against suspects.

Speaking to Missouri reporters during a conference call Wednesday morning, McCaskill likened such investigations to “trying to grab wisps of smoke” because, in addition to routing their calls through foreign computers, the criminals also frequently change the computer addresses from which those calls are made.

Such investigations can involve multiple agencies, but McCaskill said the Justice Department officials declined to attend Wednesday’s hearing due to potential conflicts of giving testimony while conducting several related investigations.

Asked what specific recommendations she might push to address the issue, McCaskill said she first wanted to hear from all of the experts, but that she suspected many in law enforcement would point to the need for greater resources.

An earlier St. Louis Public Radio article dealt with taxes and identify theft. To combat that, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., is pushing cyber security legislation that would require private sector businesses to cooperate with the government and share information about such attacks.

Consumer awareness

While the government has a roll to play in protecting citizens from phone scams, McCaskill said greater public awareness would go a long way to keeping individuals from being victimized. On Tuesday, McCaskill spoke with IRS commissioner John Koskinen and suggested the use of consumer awareness messages while callers are on hold waiting for assistance. She also agreed that public service announcements on radio and television could help educate the public.

While those behind the calls exploit what McCaskill calls the public’s “natural fear of the IRS” to trick seniors and others, she says common sense is also necessary. First, she says the IRS will not call you. Second, nobody from the IRS will ever ask for your personal financial information over the phone. She also said anytime you receive a computer generated call you should be suspicious.

Convincing sounding calls

Older individuals or those more easily confused and frightened are the preferred targets of such criminals. In such cases McCaskill said, victims have been frightened into giving up their credit and debit card numbers over the phone – something she says nobody should ever do. An audio clip of one such call provided by McCaskill’s office shows that criminals use several techniques to sound both authentic and intimidating. (We took out the full phone number given during the scam call.)

“Hi, this call is from the tax crime investigation department of the IRS.  This message is intended for you. The very second that you receive this message I need you or your retained attorney of record to return the call. Today, the reason I gave you a call – to inform you there has been a legal case, which has been filed against your name. The issue at hand is extremely time sensitive. My name is Officer Jason Clark, with the badge number 16108 – calling you from the Internal Revenue Service Department and the hard line to our division is 718-337-xxxx. I repeat for you, 718-337-xxxx. Now if you don’t return the call and I don’t hear from your attorney either, then the only thing I can do is wish you good luck as the situation unfolds on you. So, give a call as soon as possible. If you need any information about this case, give me a call back. And again, this message is for you and my name is Officer Clark with the badge I-D number 16108, calling you from the tax crime investigation division of the IRS. Give me a call back as soon as possible and get information about your case. Thank you and you have a great day.”

Susan Williams of Florissant told St. Louis Public Radio in a written response to a Public Insight Network query that she received such a call. “I was told we were being sued by the IRS and needed to make a payment,” Williams continued.  “I was sure this was not a legitimate call and didn’t respond.”

But Williams also ran into a problem noted by McCaskill in her concerns over constrained resources at the tax agency. “I tried to report this to IRS, but never got through to a person,” Williams said.

During a recent St. Louis on the Air, CPA Lance Weiss talked about the increase in tax fraud.

Inform our coverage

This report contains information gathered with the help of our Public Insight Network. To learn more about the network and how you can become a source, please click here.