Pressure to hit the April 15 filing deadline isn’t the only thing Vermonters have to worry about this tax season. State officials say scam calls from IRS impersonators are on the rise.
On March 24, at 4:45 in the afternoon, Cheryl Willette received an alarming message on her voicemail. It was from someone purporting to be from the Internal Revenue Service, and the voice sounded urgent.
“It was almost 5 o’clock on Friday, and I didn’t want to worry over the weekend what it was all about,” Willette says.
So Willette, 49, dialed the number she’d been directed to call. A woman answered the phone.
“She said she was with the IRS and her name was Dawn Mercedes, and she gave me her badge number,” Willete says.
When Willette expressed doubt over the validity of the call, she says the woman became very stern.
“They said I owed back taxes for the period of 2010 to 2015 and told me I owed $6,821,” Willette says.
When Willette lost the connection and called back, she spoke with a man who told her that she had two options.
“I could deal with this in court or out of court. I asked to speak with his supervisor and he refused. He repeated I had two options, I could deal with it in court or out of court,” Willette says. "I said I wanted to work with them, and I wanted to deal with it out of court."
When Willette indicated she wanted to enlist an attorney before sending any money, the man became enraged.
“At that point he started swearing at me, and I knew it was a scam and I hung up,” she says.
But Willette, the director of finance at the Washington Electric Cooperative, says she was surprised at how close she came to being scammed.
“They provided IRS form numbers that I was familiar with. They never asked me for personally identification information. I want people to know that this is happening, and what they should do in the event that this happens to them,” Willette says.
On Monday, Willette shared her story at a press conference in Barre, where Attorney General TJ Donovan said the attempted fraud is not an isolated incident. The attorney general’s office reported more than 6,000 attempted phone scams in 2016. Donovan says that’s an increase of 25 percent over the previous year.
“And by far the most prevalent telephone scam in the state of Vermont is the IRS tax scam,” Donovan says.
Donovan says the scammers use a familiar script.
“They scare them. They threaten Vermonters with taking them to federal court, to freeze all their assets, to subject them to criminal penalties,” Donovan says.
The perpetrators are an elusive bunch, however. Donovan says he’s unaware of any state-level prosecutions by the attorney general’s office.
“This is difficult. You have to get past the identity part here, and that is a hard nut to crack, to be perfectly honest with you,” Donovan says.
Donovan says consumer education is the most effective tool his office has to minimize the chances that Vermonters are defrauded.
Kaj Samsom, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Taxes, says people should also be wary of scammers posing as IRS agents seeking social security numbers or bank account numbers.
“These and other scams that we all hear about are part of a broader attempt to get personally identifiable information and banking information from folks so that they can steal your identity and continue operating other scams,” Samsom says.
Chris Curtis, chief of the Public Protection Division at the office of the Attorney General, says scammers play on understandable fears about getting on the wrong side of the IRS.
"But one thing that Vermonters should know is you’re not just going to receive a cold call from the federal IRS saying, 'We recalculated your taxes for the past six years,'" Curtis says. “It just doesn’t happen. So that’s the tip-off. That’s when you know.”
The attorney general’s office recorded five documented cases between 2014 and 2016 in which Vermonters paid money to an IRS scammer. The five consumers were defrauded a total of about $37,000, according to the Consumer Assistance Program office.
Donovan says that if people suspect they’ve gotten a call from an IRS scammer, they should report it to his office by calling 800 649-2424, or by calling the IRS directly at 800 829-1040.