How I tried to 'fall' for the IRS Phone Scam and was given a melancholy reminder of how lucky we are
Every so often we have an event in life that causes us to experience a moment of humility. A chance to reflect on where we are and what we have. A chance to contemplate if we are doing the best for ourselves and those around us. It could be when we hear a good sermon, experience the birth of a child or the loss of a family member, or observe a major world event. For me, one of these moments occured recently, in the form of a phone conversation, when a fake IRS agent tried to scam me out of my money. For this month’s ‘For Your Consideration’ I want to explore the moments when we reflect on whether we are doing the right things in life, and whether we are squandering opportunities. I am going to share an experience that happened to me involving the IRS phone scam and my attempt to learn how it works. First, let me do my due diligence in alerting everyone that the IRS will never call you regarding a payment due, they will never request immediate payment, and most importantly, they will never threaten you with an impending arrest (tax related offenses are a civil matter not a criminal matter). By now, it’s very possible that everyone who receives my newsletters is already aware of the various phone scams, but they wouldn’t still exist if they didn’t work. So, if ever you receive an unsolicited phone call from someone demanding money, request that an official letter be resent to you and kindly hang up. Many years ago, I frequently received calls about my computer being affected by a virus (Microsoft Virus Scam). I would often play along to give the caller a false sense of hope that they had a profitable mark on the phone. I’d do whatever I could to keep the rouse going and keep the scammers on the phone. I figured it was my civic duty to waste their time to prevent them from wasting others’ time. Right before I would allow them to access my computer I’d admit that I knew it was a scam and ask them why they would be so callous as take part in such a scheme. While I tried to stay cordial, they would usually reply with foul language and then hang up on me. For reasons that I’m sure are a bit immature, I felt a sense of victory scamming the scammers. A few weeks ago, I began receiving voicemails from ‘the IRS’ about a lawsuit being filed against me for payments owed. Being busy, I simply deleted them. However, last Friday afternoon while enjoying a walk with my dog, I received another call. Curiosity got the best of me, and with some time to kill, I decided to call back to see what kind of trouble I had caused. Maybe I could once again do my part to waste a little of the scammers time, but mostly I wanted to learn the structure of this scam. When I called back I was greeted by ‘Agent Smith’ of the ‘IRS Lawsuit Department’. He was very obviously reading from a script as he informed me an internal audit revealed I owed additional taxes for the years 2013 through 2017. If I didn’t settle the payment on that call the local police would come to my house to arrest me. The amount was around $3,000 and I could pay off my debt by purchasing iTunes gift cards and sending him the cards’ ID numbers over the phone. As ridiculous as this sounds, this is how the scam works. They threaten you with an arrest, they give you minor personal details to scare you (stuff that is easily accessible through a web search) and they say you have to pay immediately or else. I kept ‘Agent Smith’ on the phone, trying to discretely get information about him. He claimed he was in a location of Washington DC that I know well. I asked him if he frequented a nearby restaurant or museum. I asked him how long he was working with the IRS lawsuit department, what college he went to, if he was a Redskin fan, if he ever goes to nearby Ocean City or the Naval Academy. His answers were very boilerplate and often included many inaccurate details. He continued to humor my questions, assuming that I would soon arrive at a location that sold iTunes cards so I could give him the information he wanted (they keep you on the phone during the entire process and warn you not to talk to anybody because that would be illegal). Once I felt the call had gone on long enough I abruptly asked him if he received any of the money that was made from the scam. The question caught him off guard, but he very quickly realized he had been had. I waited for his selection of choice words for me and then for him to hang up. But that didn’t happen. Instead, he gave me an answer that I believe was quite sincere. He told me that he gets paid based on how long he’s on the phone. The longer he can string the victim along the better for him. His tone changed and I sensed a feeling of relief in his voice. I recognized the tone as it was the feeling I would experience early in my career when cold calling was a common practice. After hours of angry ‘no’s and hang-ups, I would connect with a person who was kind and candid. Maybe it didn’t lead to business, but it was a refreshing and welcomed change. On this call ‘Agent Smith’ no longer had to put on the facade and could instead speak to another person as his true self, if only for a few moments. When I realized I might be able to learn about the people behind these calls I searched my brain for questions to ask him. How many calls does he make a day? How many people purchased the iTunes cards and provided the card numbers to the ‘agents’? How long had he been making these calls? ‘Less than a week,’ he answered to that last question. It was one of the few answers I remember. He had been participating in the grift for less than a week. He saw an ad in a local paper for a job in a call center and learned the details of the scam once he was hired. ‘Why do you do this’, I asked. ‘How do you feel that you are tasked to get money from unsuspecting victims?’ ‘It’s better than the alternative’ he answered. ‘If I wasn’t doing this I would be on the streets begging for money.’ The conversation suddenly became very real and very sad to me. I felt bad for ‘Agent Smith’ (I never found out his real name). Participating in an illegal activity was currently his best option in life. In no way do I mean to validate the scam or 'Agent Smith''s actions and maybe he was lying to me (I don’t think he was), but it made me realize that I am very lucky to be in my place in life. I have my share of problems and hardships, but I also have a lot of options and opportunities. I have a lot of reasons to be happy and proud. How often do we take a second to realize are own life standing? More importantly, how often do we consider our opportunities, and how often do we make sure we are taking full advantage of what life has to offer us? I don’t remember how the conversation ended, but after I hung up I spent some time considering if I am doing everything I could do to maximize my potential and to use my available tools and talents to make for a better life for myself, my friends and family and even society as a whole. Maybe Agent Smith is not just another person in a bad situation and was completely lying, but my conversation with him struck a nerve with me. It was one of those moments that made me reflect on myself and my actions and reassess if I am doing everything I can be doing to make for a better world. We can look around us, on the internet and on TV and see many people struggling or dealing with a less than ideal circumstance. We might feel helpless, not having the resources to directly help someone a world away. But maybe that shouldn’t be our goal. Maybe our goal should be to make sure we are not squandering our own opportunities. Those opportunities which may improve our little part of the world, if only by a small amount. Maybe our goal should be to make sure we are maximizing the use of our individual knowledge and skills. Whether that is becoming the world’s greatest neurosurgeon, or something as simple as recycling. Work hard, better yourself and be charitable. Donate your time in a cause you believe in no matter how big or small. Do what you can to teach future generations. Opportunities to help society are all around us, we may just not recognize them. Or maybe we do recognize them but don’t see how they could help in the big picture. Even when it doesn’t seem like a little effort will make much of a difference, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make that effort anyway. Because you never know what kind of butterfly affect a random good act, or bogus phone conversation, may have on a person a world away.