CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - For almost a year and a half now, the Internal Revenue Service has been spreading the word about a telephone scam that cheated taxpayers out of more than $14 million.
The agency is even taking that message to social media.
Mark Hanson, who serves as IRS spokesman for nine states including South Carolina, began tweeting links to an IRS-produced YouTube video produced warning people about scammers pretending to be IRS employees seeking tax payments their would-be victims do not actually owe.
Hanson said the IRS has been warning of the scam since at least October of 2013.
As of Jan. 22, Hanson the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration has heard of 290,000 calls from people pretending to be IRS employees and says there have been 3,000 victims.
"If someone calls unexpectedly claiming to be from the IRS with aggressive threats if you don't pay immediately, it's a scam artist calling," IRS Commissioner John Koskinen says. "The first IRS contact with taxpayers is usually through the mail. Taxpayers have rights, and this is not how we do business."
Aside from the elderly, a favorite target for the scammers has been recent immigrants, who may be unfamiliar with how the tax system works.
"Scam artists use deportation as a threat in those cases," Hanson said. But he is quick to warn that anyone can be a target.
Technology is part of the problem, too.
"One of the ways they will try to trick people is with a software that will display a different number," he said. "Caller ID will display a legitimate IRS office number."
But that's not where the call is originating, he said.
Scammers will even Google the home address of the potential victim, then search for nearby merchants that sell prepaid debit cards.
"They instruct people to drive to a specific location and purchase a prepaid card," he said.
Once purchased, the victim is instructed to call the scam artist back with the card number. With that number, the scammer can quickly withdraw the money on the card and disappear, he said, leaving the victim out however much money was on the card and no way to trace the scammer.
The scammers even tell their victims not to discuss with anyone, including the merchant selling the card, the reason for the purchase. This is most likely an attempt to prevent someone else who might question the legitimacy of the call to have that opportunity.
Hanson is clear when it comes to warning signs to look for.
"The IRS won't call you and threaten you with arrest or being deported," he insists. "We will never ask for sensitive financial information like credit card or debit card numbers or bank account numbers over the phone, and you will never be asked to purchase a prepaid debt card."
The IRS also does not use email, text messages or any social media to discuss a taxpayer's personal tax issue, whether it involves bills or refunds.
Mobile users: Watch the IRS video here: http://bit.ly/1451gIw