Aug 05, 2014, 10:00AM

They Threatened to Arrest Me for Back Taxes

Beware of scammers posing as IRS agents.

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High on the list of things you don't want to hear when you pick up the phone is, "Mr. Berlatsky? This is the IRS criminal investigation division."

I'm probably getting the phrasing somewhat wrong. Everything after that first bit was drowned out as my internal organs attempted to scramble out my throat to a kinder, gentler world in which they were not part of an entity being investigated for tax fraud. The whole thing was only made more surreal by a bizarrely bad connection: every time I spoke ("What? What are you talking about? Tax fraud? Oh my god!") there was an audible, deafening echo on the line ("What/what? Whatwhat areare youyou talkingtalking aboutabout! Taxtax fraudfraud!") It was like the IRS had recruited me to drive myself mad.

That wasn't even the best part, though. After I'd convinced the guy on the line to call back I got to hear what he was actually saying, which was that there was a sheriff on the way right, right now, to arrest me and take my driver's license. The IRS, in its infinite wisdom, had decided that I had deliberately evaded taxes going back to 2008; they were going to prosecute me for up to $100,000 and I could serve seven years in prison. He told me that when the sheriff showed up, he'd take my driver's license and give me a court date. I wasn't supposed to leave the city. So much for my vacation plans next week.

At this point I was fairly terrorized—but also increasingly pissed. I started to splutter, as one does when talking to bureaucrats on the phone. Why hadn't I been notified before this? What the hell was going on? The guy said they'd sent me a letter in January (or maybe May)—but obviously I'd never received it—so how did that give them the right to arrest me? And how much money did I owe anyway?

After some hemming and hawing they came up with the figure $3,482, which is way more money than I want to pay for anything, but still seems like a very low figure as far as tax evasion goes. The IRS is sending sheriffs door to door to arrest people for $3400 in back taxes? Seriously?

It was about this point that I mentioned the word "scam," as in "How am I supposed to know this isn't a scam, exactly? There's no way I'm sending you a check right now." There was some more blustering about how I'd find out if they were serious when the sheriff showed up, but in retrospect it's pretty clear they'd decided I was a lost cause. The asshole crook I was talking with rambled on a bit more and transferred me to another asshole crook, and while I was on hold I emailed my accountant, who wrote back immediately, thank goodness, to call bullshit. I waited a bit to see if one or the other asshole crooks would pick up the line again so I could cuss them out thoroughly, but they just broke the connection. Fuckers.

A little searching revealed that I am not just some random sucker; I am part of a community of suckers:

The IRS today renewed its Oct. 2013 warning about a pervasive phone scam that continues to target people across the nation, including recent immigrants. The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration called it the largest scam of its kind. As of March 20, TIGTA reported that it has received reports of over 20,000 contacts related to this scam. TIGTA also stated that thousands of victims have paid over $1 million to fraudsters claiming to be from the IRS.

In this scam, the thief poses as the IRS and makes an unsolicited call to their target. The caller tells the victim they owe taxes to the IRS. They demand that the victim pay the money immediately with a pre-loaded debit card or wire transfer. The caller often threatens the victim with arrest, deportation or suspension of a business or driver’s license. In many cases, the caller becomes hostile and insulting.

Sounds familiar, right? My personal crook didn't manage to get to the wire transfer bit, but I'm sure he would have eventually.

The IRS has a number to report the scam, and I called it. The first time it was busy. The second time I got through—to a computer, which told me they were only talking to people who had actually had money or personal details stolen. Thanks to my luck, bad temperament, the promptness of my accountant or some combination of all three, that didn't include me, thank goodness.

I could’ve filled out a website form, but that seemed fairly futile, so I didn't bother. Still I couldn't help but notice that the futility, the general feeling of dealing with a faceless, impermeable bureaucracy, was not so far removed from my experience with the asshole scammers. After the initial panic, it wasn't that hard to figure out that the scammers weren't credible. But they were credible for an instant because dealing with government bureaucracies is arbitrary, frightening, and confusing. When I asked the guy to send me an email detailing the "charges," and he replied that the IRS doesn't send emails, how am I supposed to know if that's true or not? The government has all sorts of crazy rules; maybe the IRS really doesn't send emails for all I know. Scams like this are effective because the pretense that the government is uncaringly brutal is at least somewhat convincing. Government is not an asshole scammer, but there are enough points of similarity that, if you're not an expert, it's easy to mistake it for one.

—Follow Noah Berlatsky on Twitter: @hoodedu

  • You believe the scammer when he says the IRS doesn't email, but, you believe that they would call you to telegraph the arrival of the sheriff? Besides, you are now a part of the problem since you won't take the few minutes to report the scam. Thanks Noah

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  • What a surprise; Texan weighs in to blame the victim. You're predictable, at least.// I didn't believe them, man. That's why I didn't actually lose any money. But in the moment, it's somewhat frightening and disorienting.//And I didn't report it because it's pretty clear the IRS doesn't care/isn't going to do anything about it if no money was actually lost. They already know it's happening; I have really no info about these guys.// But hey, you're fighting for truth and right by shaming victims on a comments thread. Good on you.

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  • The only things you are a victim of are your own lack of critical thought and a general disregard for your fellow citizens. Nice way to go through life Noah

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  • Yep, like I said, consistent.//Folks who are scammed aren't failing in critical thought. They're being scammed. The people to aim your ire at are the folks who are doing the scamming, not at the people who are victimized.// And telling victims how they should respond to being victimized is again really not helpful. There's every reason to believe that reporting things to the authorities isn't necessarily going to help. I have no reason to think it would have in this case.//For you, though, being a good citizen means leaving anonymous, belligerent comments on a thread in order to tell folks that it's their fault for being targeted. You're a hero.

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  • How are you a victim of anything other than a lack of critical thinking? You state "I didn't believe them, man. That's why I didn't actually lose any money." Yet you still panicked, and found the experience "somewhat frightening and disorienting" Where is the logic /reason in that? On the other hand, by claiming victimhood and not reporting the scam, you aid and assist the perps. Lastly, what kind of critical thought leads you to be scared by the efficiency and efficacy of the IRS while at the same time so certain of their apathy and ineptitude that you won't report what you clearly perceive to be a heinous crime? I rest my case!

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  • Wow.//I'm a victim of criminals who attempted to take my money, Texan.// When somebody gets shot, is it their fault for being in the way of the bullet? In the wrong place at the wrong time? If somebody steals your bike, is it *just* your fault for failing to lock it down sufficiently? Or is it the fault of the person who stole the bike? Is there any moral culpability for the criminals? Or are you saying that people deserve to be victimized, yay for Hobbes?// It seems to me that the issue here is that you're desperate to tell yourself that you will never be victimized, right? You have critical thinking skills, you're a genius brave online commenter, and no harm can ever come to you because you're just so cool and virtuous and smart.// It seems to me that your vindictiveness and cruelty come from a place of basic cowardice and fear.

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  • Noah, how dare you compare your gullibility to being shot or raped!! Furthermore, why are you victimizing me with your ad hominem attacks? Please seek mental help. Your anger is out of control. When you can converse rationally I'll be glad to resume this conversation but until then, I will no longer respond to your verbal assaults. You are worse than the IRS and the scammers combined!

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  • Hah; it's always the anonymous trolls who are the real victims. Sorry the comments thread got too intense for you; look forward to chatting with you the next time you scurry out from under your rock.

  • Gotta say I'm with NOAH on this one. I'd be scared out of my mind if I got a call like that. But thanks Texan and Noah for a very lively discussion. And Noah, for insults you can do better than the "under your rock" closer.

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  • Sorry! I'm trying not to get too mean, believe it or not...there's always my favorite though. "Sorry, I couldn't hear your comment over the roar of your mother's shattering pelvis."

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  • Noah, I stay anonymous for good reason. I'm actually a Nigerian prince who is trying to get my frozen funds out of the Nigerian banks. Want to help? I only need $9 grand.

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  • "I am not just some random sucker; I am part of a community of suckers" // I'd say you're not a sucker at all. You figured out the scam while the guy was still talking to you and he got exactly zero for his efforts.

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