The phone rings. The caller is from the IRS. He says you filed your taxes incorrectly. You owe the government money and must pay immediately or risk arrest. What do you do?
Nothing, according to officials, because the caller is a scammer.
This is the latest twist on the old trick: a phone scam.
Investigators with the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA), that oversees the IRS, say a simple phone call has convinced thousands of taxpayers to give up millions of dollars across the country, by preying on the age-old fear that you owe the government money.
California has been a cash cow for the scammers.
Investigators say they have tracked more than 60,000 of these calls across the US since last October and scammers have collected around $4 million, with a quarter of that coming from California. However, these are just calls reported, TIGTA says the actual losses could be two to four times higher.
Based on the reports, investigators believe the scammers are targeting immigrants and senior citizens.
The Investigative Unit has received dozens of reports from viewers in the Bay Area getting these types of calls.
All the voicemails have a similar pitch: identifying themselves as the IRS or the Treasury Department and saying the recipient of the call owes money; they say the issue is “time sensitive” and some reference a lawsuit filed against the recipient.
“Before you get arrested can you call us back,” Greg Manubay’s answering machine at his Castro Valley phone shouted into our camera. “We have received a legal petition notice against your name”
“It scared me,” Manubay told NBC Bay Area. “I’ve never missed a tax payment so why would he be calling me?” Manubay said “I don’t owe anybody money. I don’t owe Uncle Sam!”
Manubay, a native of the Philippines, got the call around tax day this year. The caller said he was with the Treasury Department. Manubay, a retired IT manager, was tech-savvy enough to search for the caller's name online, identify the caller as a fraud and report it without paying. However, he fears other senior citizens may take the bait, so he called the Investigative Unit.
“It makes me really mad that there are people like that trying to target senior people like me,” Greg told the NBC Bay Area.
“They threatened my grandmother with legal action,” Jeffrey Velacion, whose 84-year-old grandmother also got a call, told the Investigative Unit.
“Do return the call before we take any legal action against you,” says the caller on Jeffrey’s grandmother’s voicemail.
“I was a little frightened and disturbed. My grandmother, she just had a stroke so didn’t react to anything,” Velacion said.
Investigators say all of the calls in some way threaten the recipient with arrest, IRS legal action or imprisonment, harping on the urgency of sending money.
“It’s one of our top priorities as an agency,” Tim Camus, deputy Inspector general at TIGTA, told the Investigative Unit.
Camus says it’s the largest scam of this type he’s seen in his 23-year career in law enforcement.
“We protect the integrity of the Internal Revenue Service, so naturally an impersonation of the IRS impugns the integrity of it.”
Camus’ advice: if your first contact with the IRS is from a phone call, it may not be legitimate.
“Generally, before the IRS every contacts you over the phone, you would have received multiple notices in the mail. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to you that you have a tax issue,” Camus said.
The IRS has similar advice.
“Under no circumstance is the IRS going to call you out of the blue,” Raphael Tulino, an IRS spokesperson based in San Diego, told NBC Bay Area.
Speaking of the scammers he said: “Once they have you on the line, they’re persuasive, they’re threatening, they’re insulting and that’s not how we do business.”
Do you have a tip for the Investigative Unit?
Email us: TheUnit@nbcbayarea.com