How one man was taken for $6,000 by fake IRS call
August 2, 2018
Noel Johnston was already stressed out when he received a call from the IRS about some tax violations.
OK, we already know what you’re thinking. So does Johnston. Who hasn’t gotten one of those false phone calls? But hear him out.
He had just arrived home from an appointment with his neurologist, where he discussed his family history of Alzheimer’s. He also knew that at the end of that day, July 10, he had to pick up his daughter from the airport after a long trip from Paris. She hates flying, he said, and he and his wife always have to talk her through getting on and off the plane.
So, it’s easy for him to see why, on the same day, he let phone scammers clean out a large portion of his bank account, fresh with $8,000 intended to repair his hail-damaged roof.
Johnston, a Greeley resident, just wants to make sure other people don’t fall for the same scheme.
“I’m not a little old drooling lady — I’m perfectly in control of my faculties,” he said. “If it could happen to me, it could happen to anybody.”
When he saw he had missed calls and messages from a New York number, Johnston, 70, called the number back. When a scammer is calling, his phone usually tips him off by displaying the words “Scam Likely” on the screen. The phone didn’t say that this time.
On the other end, a voice greeted him with this: “We have some very important tax violations that you need to call us about for immediate action.”
The voice said his name was Sam Watson. He was an Internal Revenue Service Agent, he said, and here was his badge number. He knew the IRS almost never calls people about a tax violation. But the other, more stressed part won.
“I think we’ve been conditioned to be fearful of the IRS to begin with,” Johnston said.
Plus, he had some issues pending with the IRS anyway. As “Watson” read off a list of the IRS violations Johnston committed, he started sweating.
The call turned into what Johnston now refers to as a “four-hour harrowing experience.”
“I couldn’t hang up the phone. It was terrifying,” he said. “I couldn’t hang it up.”
The caller said Johnston owed the IRS $11,695. It wasn’t a round number. It seemed too specific to be a scam. And, the caller said, the sheriff had a warrant out for his arrest.
Now Johnston kicks himself a bit. There were ways to avoid losing so much money, he admits today.
He could’ve asked who the Weld County sheriff was, the caller wouldn’t have known and they would’ve ended the conversation right then and there.
“I didn’t think to ask that,” Johnston said.
So he listened as the caller told him about the pending warrant that would go away if he paid them an installment of $6,000.
He said OK.
The next red flag was this: The caller asked him to go to his bank and withdraw the $6,000 in cash.
“But I’m scared, so I said OK,” he said.
They told him to keep the phone line open as he took the money out. Don’t tell people at the bank why you’re withdrawing the money, they told him, because do you really want them to know you are having troubles with the IRS?
Another red flag. But he was shaking as he kept the phone line open.
After he got the money — the most the retired teacher had ever withdrawn from his bank account — the caller told him to go to the nearest Safeway, Target, 7-Eleven or store of his choice to buy $6,000 worth of Google Play gift cards.
Google Play is the service Android users to download apps, music and movies onto their phones. If Johnston checked the company’s website, he would’ve seen the warning that the gift cards are commonly used in scams, ones that ask for money to pay for taxes, bail money, debt collection, even cars.
At this point in the story, Johnston does everything but roll his eyes at himself.
“How ridiculous is it that I’m going to pay my taxes with Google Play gift cards?” Johnston asked.
When he walked into Safeway, he was terrified he was going to get robbed with that much cash on him.
“It turned out I was getting robbed,” he said.
The robbers were just in his pocket, listening to Johnston as he grabbed 12 Google Play gift cards, walked up to the customer service table and asked the cashier to put $500 on each of them.
The cashier remarked that someone was going to have fun with all those cards.
Yeah, Johnston told her, they sure are. In the back of his mind, he thought about the scammer’s warning: Don’t tell them why you’re getting the money.
The cashier got through a few of the cards, then Safeway’s system locked up.
Safeway spokeswoman Kris Staaf said this is part of the store’s anti-fraud technology. The cashier rings up cards, and at a certain dollar amount, the system freezes up and a manager is supposed to come over and talk with the customer.
When the cashier called her manager over to look at the screen Johnston was standing by, the manager was concerned. This is an awful lot of money, she told him, adding, “these kinds of cards are being used by scams.” The manager asked him if anyone called him to tell him to buy the cards. It was yet another opportunity for Johnston to save himself. All Johnston had to do was say yes. The caller, listening in on the line, would have hung up.
“This is what hurts my heart the most,” Johnston said.
“I looked her right in the eye and said, ‘No one told me to do this.’ ”
After that, he went home, scratched off the back of the cards and, for 20 minutes, read the 16-digit numbers to the caller on the other line. Once the numbers were in the caller’s possession, the money was gone.
When he was done, Johnston sat at home, trembling.
Four or five times, he asked this: “How do I know this is not a scam?”
The caller passed him onto a person who said he was a finance manager, then to another IRS agent. Their responses all sounded rehearsed.
The phone got cut off somehow, and Johnston sat there, thinking, “Oh my God, I’ve been scammed,” he said.
The same number called him back, and the conversation was different this time.
He told the callers he knew they were scamming him.
Click. The conversation was over.
When he went back to Safeway, the manager’s eyes told him what he feared: The money was gone as soon as he read the 16-digit number. But he showed her the cards, anyway, and she confirmed it: “It’s gone. There is no way to trace it.”
She referred him to Google Play’s customer service representatives. They told him about the warning on their website and another one on the IRS website.
Johnston said he doesn’t want any sympathy. He’s not going to jail, and he’s not going to lose his house. But sometimes, he thinks about the scammers. They knew they were preying on someone who was scared.
Christy Hardwick, the fraud investigations specialist for the Greeley Police Department, said she gets calls about scams like this once or twice a week. It happens to people of all ages — from teenagers who haven’t paid taxes before to grandparents who are told their grandchildren are in trouble and need help.
The only time people ever get their money back is when they figure out they’re getting scammed while they’re on the phone and the wire transfer hasn’t gone through yet.
But that’s happened less than five times in the 14 years Hardwick has been investigating scams. Cases are rarely solved on a national level, let alone a local level.
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It’s a common scam, and all the police department can do is document it when it happens. Hardwick encourages people who are scammed to visit the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s internet crime website, ic3.gov, and report it.
Johnston said he still wakes up in the middle of the night and thinks, “Why the hell didn’t I hang up the phone?”
It’s a question he doesn’t want anyone else to lose sleep over.