Phishing and phone scams increase on heels of tax season
Park City resident Andrew Gontram received two voicemails about six months ago from someone claiming to be with the Internal Revenue Service.
Gontram said the person on the phone told him he was being investigated by the IRS for failure to pay taxes and he would be arrested if he didn’t cooperate. He said his caller ID displayed a New York area code.
"It was all pretty much the same message," Gontram said. "They said, ‘we will send police to your door and they will arrest you.’ At first, it sounds really intimidating and it makes you kind of nervous. They were just basically asking for money."
After the caller left him messages, Gontram decided to enter the number into the Google search engine. He said he found comments from other people claiming to have been scammed by the same number.
"I called the number back and I actually talked to the person," Gontram said. "He had an accent and he sounded professional at first. I was trying to talk to him and then I told him ‘I know this is fake.’ He tried to keep it going, but then he broke out of character and he said ‘I’m going to find you’ and made terroristic threats. I just said ‘I don’t believe you’ and hung up."
When spring hits, so do the scams
most measures, Gontram was lucky. According to the IRS website, phone, phishing and identify theft scams are occurring more frequently as scammers are continuously developing ways to convince victims to hand over their money.
From May 2015 to May 2016, 159 cases of suspected fraudulent activity were reported in Summit County, according to the Sheriff’s Office. Detective Kacey Bates said those numbers include cases involving identify theft and phishing and IRS scams, among others. Bates said not every report represents a case where someone was victimized. She said it could include situations where they were contacted, but did not cooperate in the scam. "It doesn’t surprise me how many fraud cases that I and our investigations team see," Bates said. "But it is unfortunate that this number of people are losing this money and being victimized by these people.
"And when people call the most is during tax season," Bates said. "That’s when we see this influx of people being targeted."
According to information provided by the Sheriff’s Office, the following number of cases were reported within the last year few years:
- 2014: 135 total cases
- 2015: 136 total cases
- 2016: 83 total cases as of May 19
"These people are very believable and really pushy and will try to convince you that if you do not send this money within the next 12 hours or so, you will be arrested," Bates said. "But the thing we want to remind people of is: that is not how the IRS conducts business and that is not how the Sheriff’s Office or police department works. We won’t just show up at your door and arrest you.
"There are only two ways the IRS will contact you and that is through mail or personally visit your home," Bates said. "The Sheriff’s Office is very similar. We will send you letters on official letterheads. We do not call people and ask for payment over the phone." ‘
‘Almost rarely, if ever, prosecuted
One of the harsh realities of fraudulent activity is that very few cases end with a suspect in custody. Summit County Prosecutor Matt Bates said cases involving phone and phishing scams are almost "rarely, if ever, prosecuted."
"Oftentimes when these situations occur these people are calling from halfway across the world and they are using untraceable numbers and having the victims deposit the money on things like gift cards, which are also untraceable," Bates said.
If a suspect is identified from another country, Bates said it become a matter of politics as the county attorney must try to seek extradition.
"We don’t have treaties with every country and it does become political," Bates said. "There may also be more pressing matters that they are focused on, unfortunately, over a situation where someone was scammed out of $2,000."
Bates said fraud and theft by deception "is just one of those areas where you need to educate and protect yourself because the government can’t do it for you."
These days, Gontram said he knows several ways to protect himself from and recognize scams. He said he has been targeted at least twice since the IRS phone scam, but most of the calls have come from numbers that were blocked. He added, however, that a close friend wasn’t as fortunate.
"My friend survived a horrible accident when he was younger and suffered severe head trauma. Ever since that he has struggled," Gontram said. "He was targeted in an email phishing scam where they say ‘you have a relative who died and you’re entitled to inherit their money.’ He lost $20,000 because of it.
"That kind of stuff strikes a chord because it’s not fair," he said. "These are criminals and they are preying on people and using fear and intimidation to do it."
Gontram echoed the statements of the county prosecutor and said "due diligence is everyone’s best protection against something like this."
"Do a little research on it with whatever information you have about the person or situation. Use Google, it’s a great tool," Gontram said. "Never hand over your money to anyone that is trying to solicit money in an unofficial matter over the phone or through email. Just because they say they are someone, doesn’t mean they are that person."
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