It started with Homeland Security Department officials, then Internal Revenue Service agents.
The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) for three years conducted an interagency investigation into phone scammers pretending to be agency officials, and this month arrests are being made.
In an Oct. 27 joint announcement from TIGTA, DHS and the Justice Department, 61 individuals were indicted for their part in scams resulting in more than 10,000 victims and hundreds of millions of dollars in stolen money.
“When we started working on our investigation, we compared notes and we ran into a couple defendants that we identified. As we started more fully developing those, we learned that there were other agencies investigating them for various types of fraud that were going on,” said Timothy Camus, TIGTA deputy inspector general for investigations, during a call with reporters. “So we joined forces, which is generally what we do in federal law enforcement. So we brought the piece that involved the IRS impersonation, and DHS brought the piece that involved their expertise on their programs that were being impersonated, and it was all led under the U.S. Attorney’s Office.”
Bruce Foucart, an assistant director with ICE Homeland Security Investigations, called the “brazenness” of the scammers “chilling.”
“These scammers in this case, and in so many cases like this, are convincing,” Foucart said during a joint news conference Oct. 27. “They are menacing and they are ruthless in their pursuit of their victims. They convey authority and a sense of urgency that leave their victims terrified.”
The full names of victims are not given, but court records show a “William G.” of Naperville, Ill., paid $37,000 in prepaid Reloadit cards for alleged tax violations, while “Mamta S.” of San Francisco, paid $43,000 in prepaid MoneyPak cards for alleged immigration and tax violations.
“U.S. government agencies do not make these types of calls,” Foucart said, echoing earlier words from Leslie Caldwell, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Criminal Division.
“We never call to demand that money be loaded immediately onto prepaid cards,” she said. “U.S. agencies do not call and demand immediate payments to avoid deportation or to avoid arrest.”
DHS Inspector General John Roth said dozens of electronic search warrants were issued, “countless interviews tracing thousands of financial transactions.”
“The investigation touched every part of the United States,” Roth said. “These results are only possible if you work together.”
J. Russell George, Inspector General for TIGTA, said since 2013, his office received more than 2 million reports from people who said they had received calls from individuals demanding money.
About 10,000 of them said they’d actually paid up, totaling about $50 million, George said.
Camus said as early as 2012, scamming call centers were impersonating DHS officials, in particular U.S. Customs and Immigration Services agents, and targeting people with recent immigration status.
“Around 2013, we started to notice we were getting reports of people impersonating IRS agents, claiming that the victims owed taxes and that they better pay those or face arrest,” Camus said.
George said his advice to anyone who receives a call is “hang up and follow up” with a report to TIGTA and law enforcement.
George said public service announcements as well as congressional outreach to constituents has helped cut down on the number of victims, and recent arrests in India have helped reduced reports of scam victims.
Camus said the results of this investigation are going to be shared with Congress “to consider if there are any things that need to be changed to make this more difficult, as well as continuing the work that we’re doing collaboratively.”
Camus said he believed the IRS scam will continue in some way, along with other phone scams.