Money transfer companies fight IRS scammers: NPR

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There is a phone scam where an intimidating caller pretends to be from the IRS, demanding immediate money. There is also an anti-scam going on. At check-cashing outlets, employees deal with terrified victims demanding to send money to bogus IRS agents. Intervening requires awareness, compassion, and a script, just as crooks use it.



AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

There is a scam over the phone. Maybe you even got one of the calls. Someone claims to be an IRS agent, says you owe money on back taxes, and you need to wire the money immediately. Companies that handle wire transfers don’t like this. Alex Goldmark from our Planet Money podcast tells us how one of them retaliates.

ALEX GOLDMARK, BYLINE: The phone rang on a Thursday.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Still, it was Thursday, and I was about to see ten clients in a row. I am a therapist.

GOLDMARK: We’re not going to use this woman’s name because she’s worried about how this story might hurt her business. Here’s how the scam went for her. The woman calling saying, I’m with the IRS; you owe back taxes. The police are on their way to arrest you right now. And just then another call on the other line comes in with the caller ID showing 911, and it’s a man saying he’s a cop on the way. It’s fast, tense and confusing.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I’m all alone, and I’m, like – I imagine – oh, my God, I’m going to go to jail, and it’s going to be really hard on my kids.

GOLDMARK: The fake IRS agent’s name is Eva, and she gives very specific instructions on how to send the money. She says, go to an ATM, take out a bunch of money and wire it. Use a specific company, MoneyGram.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: She tells me, you have to stay on the phone with me all the time.

GOLDMARK: She does as she was told, goes to the MoneyGram branch, transfers the money. And a little later …

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And all of a sudden Eva picked up the phone and said, I’m sorry; I have very bad news for you. The transfer did not take place. And I say to myself what? What are you saying? Like, how is that possible? This happened. I have a receipt.

GOLDMARK: MoneyGram had stopped its transfer because it looked suspicious. It happens often enough that they have a system to deal with it. So when the therapist tells the MoneyGram clerk, the money did not flow; I want to send it again, said the clerk, wait, make a call and get on the phone. And now here’s where our therapist’s day goes from terrifying to disorienting. She is now holding two phones – the fake IRS agents on the cell phone in one hand and someone from MoneyGram in a second phone in her other hand. MoneyGram gave us a recording of this call.

(EXTRACT FROM THE ARCHIVED RECORD)

ARIS: My name is Aris (ph) from MoneyGram.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Is this from MoneyGram?

ARIS: Yes, my name is Aris, ma’am, yes.

GOLDMARK: He says, may I ask you – who are you sending this money to?

(EXTRACT FROM THE ARCHIVED RECORD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: They are lawyers.

ARIS: And do you know them personally, ma’am?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No, I don’t.

ARIS: I have a bad feeling, ma’am.

GOLDMARK: I have a bad feeling, he said.

(EXTRACT FROM THE ARCHIVED RECORD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: OK, you know what? Can you – can you hold on just a minute – because I just need to be sure I’m doing the right thing, so just a minute.

ARIS: Are you sure, ma’am? Please specify.

GOLDMARK: Now she turns to the cell phone in her other hand to talk to the crooks and tell them what MoneyGram is saying, then comes back.

(EXTRACT FROM THE ARCHIVED RECORD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: OK, hello. Go ahead.

GOLDMARK: Aris from MoneyGram gently asks him more questions.

(EXTRACT FROM THE ARCHIVED RECORD)

ARIS: And they tell you if you don’t pay the fees you’ll go to jail, right?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yes, I will be arrested instantly. I got a call from 911.

ARIS: Actually, you are the victim of a scam. Are you aware of this?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No.

GOLDMARK: He goes from questions to statements. These people are fake, he said. He says it several times. For a moment, she listens, two phones in both hands, uncertain of reality.

(EXTRACT FROM THE ARCHIVED RECORD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: What should I do? I mean, what am I doing? I’m terrified of being …

ARIS: Don’t worry. Nothing will happen, ma’am.

GOLDMARK: It’s over. I got my hands on Aris from MoneyGram, the man who brought it back to reality. He says he can get 20 calls like this a day. Sometimes it takes people 30 minutes to get by. Our therapist called – it took nine minutes. And in hindsight, we have the impression that she was in a trance or bewitched.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: When I had both phones in my hand, I thought – it’s almost like, which reality do I prefer? And I prefer the reality where they save me and my money is somewhere and I’m going to get it back and I’m not stopping. It was – but it was, like, this twist in my head at the time.

GOLDMARK: The IRS says thousands of people have fallen for this scam, losing tens of millions of dollars. Alex Goldmark, NPR News.

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