The calls started last fall, around the time the Internal Revenue Service issued a warning about a sophisticated phone scam from IRS impersonators who targeted immigrants. The callers claimed to be IRS investigators. "The second you receive this message I need you or your retained attorney of record to return the call," they said. "The issue at hand is extremely time sensitive."
A fake name and badge number were given, along with a number to call and this warning, "If you don't return the call and if I don't hear from your attorney either, then the only thing I can do is wish you good luck as the situation badly unfolds on you."
Last week, after having gotten five or six such messages, I called back. It was a Buffalo, N.Y., area code, but that means little, since the scammers apparently can access any area code by phoning over the Internet. The man who picked up answered to Ian Morgan. Like the other IRS imposters calling me, he had an Indian accent. Being of Indian origin, I can tell.
He said an IRS audit showed my income was higher than what I had declared, accusing, "You tried to defraud the IRS." I asked him how much I had declared and what he thought my real income was, but he said he wasn't authorized to say. He gave me 45 minutes to have my attorney call him. I told him I didn't have one, and he'd have to deal with me.
"I'm not comfortable with you," he declared. I prodded him about his true motives, telling him I was a journalist — and it was surprising how fast "Ian Morgan" folded.
"I'm not working for the IRS," he finally admitted. He said he's Indian, in the final semester of his MBA, and earns $50,000 a month this way. He said there are thousands like him doing it all over the world.
He wouldn't say where he was, but I could hear other Indian accents in the background. He wouldn't say how he receives the money he extorts but said he doesn't take credit card numbers or checks. I later learned prepaid debit card numbers are common. Asked how he could justify what he does, "Ian Morgan" responded with a quote from The Wolf of Wall Street: "There is no nobility in poverty. I've been rich and I've been poor but I will choose rich every f**king time."
"It's a good movie," he told me.
How far would he go, I asked. Would he kill for money? "We're not terrorists!" he said indignantly. Yet he would prey on immigrants, I argued. Only rich people, he said. (He obviously hadn't seen my tax return.) He did concede that Asians may be targeting other Asians. But urging me not to disclose anything, he suggested "You're Asian. I'm Asian. Let's make a deal." That kinship sure mattered when he was trying to scam me.
IRS employees receive many reports like mine. Christopher Miller, an IRS spokesman, said the agency would never contact people by phone. He said scam victims have been threatened with jail or deportation, loss of a driver's license or a business if they don't pay.
The scammers even tried to hit up Sgt. Vicki Lalla, the spokeswoman for the Iowa City Police Department. "Unfortunately they're very difficult to catch," she said, noting that people are trusting and could get intimidated "even if there's just a kernel of truth to what they're saying. Probably for every 1,000 people they call, three or four fall for it. But if they're calling tens of thousands ..."
My scammer blamed his victims, scoffing, "There are too many people who are stupid."
Does he feel guilty? "Yes, I do," he replied. In two months when he graduates, he plans to quit.
Perhaps you wouldn't expect someone enterprising enough to be getting an MBA to be doing this. Then again, corruption and greed on Wall Street can look pretty sexy onscreen. My scammer even had the lines memorized. — Des Moines Register