With tax-filing season upon us, the scam artists are out in force and working the phones.
Here in Philomath, there have been at least four such calls, ones that were reported to the police anyway, involving callers identifying themselves as with the Internal Revenue Service and telling people that they owe money or else.
Philomath Chief of Police Ken Rueben said Thursday that the elderly are almost always targeted. It's a scam that's been seen before but a new tactic has created concern.
"What alarmed us recently is that these callers are using those cellphone number-changing apps," Rueben said. "There are apps available that you can use to disguise your phone number."
Just recently, a local woman answered her phone with the person on the other end telling her that he was representing the Philomath Police Department. He then told her that to remove any doubt, he could call right back from a Philomath PD phone.
"So the gal gets the follow-up phone call and it's got the Philomath Police Department business number on it," Rueben said. "So that scared her even more. So she actually came down here."
The woman headed to the station and still had the scammer on the phone when she handed it over to police. When the caller was told he was now talking to the Philomath Police Department, he became even more aggressive and said they were now part of a lawsuit and that the call was being recorded.
A Philomath police officer talked to the man for an estimated five minutes and the scammer didn't back down.
Even though the police had the crook on the phone, there was nothing they could do to find him. The call couldn't be traced because of the app that disguises phone numbers.
"We've had four different people in the last week that our guys have talked to, but unfortunately, there's no workable information to actually do an investigation because these guys call and the numbers they're using are bogus," Rueben said.
The would-be victims are told there is a warrant for their arrest but that there is a way to get out of it and save everybody the trouble. They could go to a store, buy a prepaid credit card and then relay information to him, such as the card's number and so on.
"The person that's calling is very smooth, sounds like a federal agent and says that they've done an investigation and found that the person they're talking to is four years behind paying a particular fee, or having to pay their taxes in full and now there's a penalty, and the penalty already went to the level of arrest warrant," Rueben said.
The scam artists perform a lot of online research to find out specific information about people, such as maiden name, former addresses and so on. And anyone can subscribe to services that perform background checks.
"It's pretty interesting that the person did enough research to talk intelligently on the phone beforehand because most of these people probably hang up," Rueben said. "So you have to take a little bit of time on each person, otherwise, it's not going to seem legit."
The scammers also talk in a way that sends the message that they are real. In one of the local cases, the caller gave a case number, an IRS identification number and a name along with information such as a miscalculation had been made on a specific form and the taxpayer owed the government $5,850.
"This time of the year, generally elderly people are the intended targets where we get somebody calling an elderly person up and saying 'you're in arrears on your tax payments,'" Rueben said.
Another would-be victim believed the call she received might be legitimate because her husband had just finished doing their taxes a few days earlier. The phone call made her think something went wrong.
The police chief's own stepdad received a similar scam call last year.
"He calls me about this time and he says, 'Hey, you're not going to believe this. I'm going to get arrested today,'" Rueben said about a phone call he received from his stepdad. "He goes, 'Well, this guy called me from the IRS and said I haven't paid my taxes in the last two years and they're coming down here to arrest me on a federal warrant.'"
The scammer said he was calling from the Bend Police Department and investigators were running names. A few details followed and then the hook came.
Rueben described the call: "He tells him, 'Hey, we can make this happen. You only owe ... and it was a specific number like $3,840.23. We can clear this up and this is how you can do it. The easiest and fastest way is to go get a prepaid credit card and we'll just do it that way. Do you have one of those places in town?'"
Rueben said his stepdad hung up on the caller, but the scammer called back about every hour for the next three days.
Although there are many types of red flags, there is one important fact to remember.
"The IRS is never going to call and tell you that you owe money, they just don't," Rueben said. "It usually comes by a certified letter and then there's a number you call with a code and everything, so that you can call up and verify who you are without giving private information over the phone. But by internet or phone, it's never going to happen that way."
Rueben said not paying taxes is not even an "arrestable" charge.
"You can be fined, but it's not tax fraud," he said. "Tax fraud is when you intentionally defraud the government and that becomes a federal investigation at that point. You'll be interviewed. That's what you need to be more concerned with — if somebody knocks on your door with some identification that says 'IRS Treasury Agent' on it."
Police hope they can catch up to the scammers at some point in the future.
"Maybe someday, somebody will do something dumb and we'll be able to trace it back to them," Rueben said. "Because of the complicated networks they use with the phones, almost every time they're not a local person. They're in some other state and once that information travels from state to state, it becomes a federal jurisdiction case, not ours."