People scammed?  What else is new?  Judging from news reports, it happens all the time.  Ponzi schemes succeed with disturbing regularity.  “Long distance’ phone calls or text messages, often from Nigeria, falsely promising huge payoffs in return for initial segments have long plagued us.  “Prize winners” are typically asked for money prior to collecting substantial payoffs which never materialize.  Individuals are lured into dubious penny stocks which generally crash and burn before “investors” can sell.  Shady contractors require large down payments on projects never undertaken.

I’ve often read about these scams, but never myself experienced any – until it happened.  And this one was not all that obvious at first.  Among my phone messages recently was a recorded voice which, in a matter-of-fact manner, informed me that this was a “final notice” from the IRS and that it had filed a lawsuit against me.  No explanation was offered, but a phone number given which I was asked to call.

Now of all the organizations you might hear from, the IRS is not one you’d be tempted to ignore or brush off.  No one is ever totally confident that their tax returns are unimpeachably accurate or that certain deductions might have been inflated or some income unreported.  Still, I couldn’t imagine what was amiss and, more importantly, why I hadn’t been notified by letter, long the agency’s standard mode of communication.

I dialed the number given, the call answered promptly by a woman of South Asian origin who I had some trouble understanding.  Still my suspicions were not aroused – government employees are not always the most effective communicators.  Indeed it seemed quite legitimate because she proceeded to give me her name, made certain I spelled it correctly and then added what she said was her official badge identification number.  In addition, in the background I could hear chatter which suggested this was a busy office, which I imagined would be the case with the IRS.

Now I was concerned.  “What was the problem?” I asked.  Her response was immediate and seemingly plausible.  The amounts I had recorded on my tax returns did not correspond with those that had been submitted from various sources to the IRS over a period of years.  Accordingly, there was a deficiency and hence the action taken against me.

“Why am I just learning about this?” my tone of voice still respectful, even deferential.  “We had sent you two previous letters” she replied, “but had not heard back.”  One letter perhaps I’d overlooked or misplaced, but two – that seemed highly unlikely.  More disturbing, she went on to inform me that my failure to pay what I owed, plus interest, plus penalties, amounted to $4,813.  This was serious.  “I’m going to have to check with my accountant and have him review my returns,” I responded.

At this point she determined it would be best that I speak to her supervisor.  I agreed and almost without delay he got on, then excused himself in order, he said, to review my file.  He soon confirmed what I had originally been told.  But now, what had been a relatively persuasive performance came undone.  When I protested that I would first need to review the situation with my accountant and lawyer he informed me that I had but 45 minutes to an hour to settle the matter (presumably by credit card, over the phone).  My refusal would, he said, activate the collection process.  I would soon, he warned, be visited by the local sheriff!

That pushed it over the top; it lost all credibility.  Still polite, I told him I would think about it and hung up the phone.  Sure, I was relieved since I had not been altogether confident about my standing with the IRS.  But now I was also angry.  These people had created a plausible scenario, seemed capable of orchestrating a scam that could succeed.

I called my local Police Department to report the incident.  Before I could offer any detail the officer mentioned a phone number and asked if it was the one I had been instructed to call.  “How did you know that?”  “You’re not”, he replied, “the first call that’s come in this morning about this”.  We had been targeted.

And as I soon discovered after an on-online visit to the IRS site, there were few places in the country unaffected by this well-organized, albeit nefarious, operation.

Schemers alas, will always be with us creatively plotting to capitalize either on our fears and uncertainties, or on our greed.

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