Will a Federal Budget Law Provision Help Scammers Get to Your Cash?

By David Cruz

A voicemail message purporting to be from the IRS: “The reason of this call is to inform you that IRS is filing a lawsuit against you.”

It sounds official and pretty convincing, except that it’s not, and the Treasury Department reports that since late 2013 more than 700,000 Americans have fallen victim to similar phone scams, costing them $23 million. Terrible, in and of itself, but the Senator Robert Menendez says a provision in the new federal budget deal makes it easier for scammers to perpetrate their crimes.

“The federal government, or a third-party collection agency acting on its behalf, now can call or robocall you or your cell phones seeking payment, and that could be for back taxes or if you haven’t paid a federally-backed student loan,” said Menendez.

Which will result in more nuisance calls to you from “official” sources, but also gives scammers the cover of presumed legitimacy to call and convince you that you’re behind on your taxes and facing legal action. Bloomfield resident Linda Mairona was repeatedly targeted by a similar scam. She said a woman left several messages on her machine, telling her she owed the IRS money and asked her to call a number to clear it up.

“[They said] contact a criminal attorney, you’re really in trouble, blah, blah, blah all this kind of stuff,” she said, “so I was attuned to it and the neighbors on the block each said they were getting a phone call and to be aware of these things so I just chose to ignore it.”

Detective Mike Jennings of the Leonia Police Department was able to arrest two scammers last month. “I have about 470 victims total. They’ve lost nearly $1.3 million,” he said. “I get calls daily from victims all around the country.”

Menendez has proposed a fix, which he calls the Helping Americans Never Get Unwanted PhoneCalls, or HANGUP. It repeals the section in the budget bill that gave the IRS permission to call you. Leonia Police Chief Thomas Rowe says he tells potential victims all the time that the IRS can’t call you to collect a debt.

“The first thing I tell them, and this comes directly from the IRS website, is that the IRS will not call you,” he noted, “so here we’re telling they might be calling you because of this recent bill that was passed, so this is why it’s so important for Congress to pass the HANGUP Act.”

Menendez says congressional Republicans are behind the measure, an effort to allow the IRS to maximize its collections. He said he hopes they’ll agree to rescind it and maybe fund the agency more robustly so it can do its job more effectively without also giving scammers another way to get to your cash. In the meantime, if someone calls and says they’re from the IRS, chances are they’re probably not and you should just hangup.