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IRS scammers need evangelizing, too!



Russell E. Saltzman - published on 06/11/17

You should never give your personal information over the phone, but there are other things you can say.

I bet you’ve gotten one of those calls, or you know  or read about someone who did. That’s the call from someone claiming to be an agent of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, and does he have a scary tale for you. You owe money, lots of money, and they are coming to get you.

The routine spiel is scripted. I know this because I’ve had four of those calls in three years (just special, I guess) and my #2 daughter has had one. She started it. The call she received was the first we encountered. She said, wait, you need to talk to my dad. Thanks. I almost skipped her birthday card that year.

Happily, I had done her taxes. I knew the numbers. I also knew the IRS never calls attempting to collect a debt for Uncle Sam. The would-be victim of the scam is told they owe the government oodles of money. If immediate payment is not made, IRS agents (or the local police, maybe Texas Rangers) are standing by to arrest the hapless taxpayer. Would-be victims are sometimes threatened with revocation of their driver’s license or deportation, dire things like that.

Scammers also use email notices, leave phone messages saying the IRS is filing lawsuit for non-payment; call this number. The messages are always threatening, bullying.

Some of the stories are heartbreaking: An 85-year-old California woman lost $12,000; an elderly Long Island grandmother, $68,000. The Long Island grandmother was trying to withdraw another $18,000 to satisfy her “debt” when an alert bank clerk questioned it. That transfer was halted and the money returned. It was only then she mentioned the earlier $68,000.

Like many victims, she wasn’t going to report her loss. Shame and embarrassment prevent them from saying anything. To do so is an admission they have been played for an old fool, or a young one. The scammers probably have no idea who they are actually targeting, old or young. They do not discriminate on account of age or other factors. They just want the gullible.

From the latest numbers I’ve seen (2013), people falling victim shelled out $26.5 million to the scam artists.

There is no estimate of unreported losses. But robocalls from a call center located in India, seeking callbacks from possible U.S. victims, generated as much as $55 million annually.

Who are these people? The report from India said that 70 call center workers were arrested, along with the mastermind, one Sagar Thakkar, plus an Indian associate in the United States. News accounts describe them as Millennials, both in their mid-20s.

This got me to thinking about the other 70 young men making the actual calls, the ones who try and make a “sale.”

I don’t imagine it is easy work, being employed in a call center sweat shop. I have an acquaintance that does legitimate call center help-line work. He describes it as taking calls from people who, unaccountably, always seem personally angry with him. A good call with a “thank you” at the end makes his day less exhausting.

But for the young scammers, the pressure to perform, to get the money, and living with whatever guilt comes from cheating people must be tremendous. For all I know, once they are in, they are trapped, threatened with exposure if they want out. And they do it for rupees, presently at an unfavorable exchange against the dollar. Even legitimate India-based call center workers earn only about $2 an hour, according to 2011 figures

I cannot think scamming is anything but miserable, demeaning work for the actual people making or fielding the actual calls, done on a graveyard shift, night after night. If it isn’t economic human trafficking, we’ll have to invent a new name for it.

Law enforcement says one should not have any interaction with a scam caller, none. Remember, the IRS never calls. Once you are convinced it is a fake call, hang up without a word. They mean don’t give away your address, Social Security number, your name if you are asked for it, nothing personal. That’s good advice.

But no one says to avoid inviting the scammer to prayer.

After the first call, during which I explained my unhappiness with the caller, employing one of my  harsh Germanic-heritage words, I began thinking about the caller. I said a prayer for my potential victimizer afterward. With the subsequent three calls, I let them finish their shtick and then I started poking. What’s a nice boy like you doing, trying to cheat people? What would your mother say? Does your religion say this is a good thing to do? Then I offered to pray for him, right then, over the phone.

I’m not being snarky, self-righteous, virtuous, playing gotcha, or even thinking anything remotely pious. I honestly hoped to hear, “Yes.” No one has. My offer has uniformly met with a click from the other end.

I think my approach is backward, though. Once I let him finish the pitch, instead of menacing him with his mother, maybe I should offer to pray first.

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