These 'Imposter' Scams Are No April Fools' Joke

IRS
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

For some criminals, every day is April Fools' Day.

Their cons are based on pretending to be someone else. And they're pretty good at it. They're able to convince people that they really are an IRS agent, police officer, legitimate debt collector or member of the Microsoft tech team.

"Financial fraud crimes are on the rise in this country and imposter scams are one of the major things driving that increase," said Doug Shadel, a fraud prevention expert with AARP's Fraud Watch Network. "Technology has made it so easy for criminals to pretend to be someone else—and to do so effectively."

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The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has seen the problem grow. Imposter scams are now number three on the commission's recently-released Top 10 Consumer Complaints for 2014, with more than 276,000 complaints filed.

The increase in imposter scams was led by a sharp spike in complaints about fraudsters claiming to be with the IRS or other government agencies.

"Saying you're from the government is going to get someone's attention," said Lois Greisman, who heads the FTC's division of marketing practices. "It's clearly an effective tactic which is why the crooks use it."

Most of these imposter scams take place over the phone, but email, text messages and pop-up ads are all used to troll for victims. In many cases, the scammers can get the wheels in motion with a robocall or voicemail message, because they know just what to say to make some people call back.

Read MoreIRS ignoring 60% of calls as tax deadline looms

"They impersonate someone you'd fear, like an IRS agent, bill collector or police officer," said John Breyault who runs the National Consumers League's Fraud.org website. "It's all designed to get you to call back and to part with your money without thinking too hard about whether you actually owe any money to the person calling you."

A clever con artist can impersonate almost any business or government agency. They can even pretend to be a member of the family who is in trouble and needs money sent to them right away.

The two most common imposter scams right now involve calls from fake IRS agents and bogus computer technicians. Both of these cons have been going on for years—and yet, they're still claiming victims every day.

IRS imposter scam

This one isn't limited to tax season, but it's running rampant now.

Fraudsters who pose as IRS agents call year round, demanding payment for back taxes. They want the money now and threaten immediate arrest if you don't come up with the cash right away—typically by prepaid debit card or wire transfer.

These scammers "use fake names, provide bogus IRS badge numbers and alter caller ID numbers to make it look like the IRS is calling," the real Internal Revenue Service reminded taxpayers in a fraud alert issued this week.

IRS imposters are often abusive and aggressive—and they don't back down until you agree to pay them the thousands of dollars your supposedly owe Uncle Sam.

Read More Stop making these big mistakes on your tax return

"It's hard to believe this scam works, but we're seeing more and more people falling for it," said David Quinlan with the Better Business Bureau of Alaska, Oregon and Western Washington. "And it works because they use scare tactics to get you to do something impulsively, rather than think about it. Once they say the police are on the way or you could go to jail, a lot of people will pay up or do whatever the caller wants."

Protect yourself: If the IRS needs to contact you about a tax problem, they will send you a letter via U.S. mail. They won't call. And they'll never call threatening a lawsuit or to send the police to arrest you if you don't pay on the spot. Get a phone call like this where someone says they're from the IRS—hang up. If you want to check it out, call the IRS at 1-800-829-1040.

Tech support imposter scam

It seems like the ultimate customer service. A call from the tech support team at Microsoft or some other big electronics company. It seems they've noticed that your computer has a serious problem—typically a virus or corrupt operating system - that needs immediate attention.

If you don't hang up (which you should) you'll be asked to run "a simple diagnostic test" which invariably shows there is a problem.

The goal is to give the crooks remote access to your computer, allowing them to steal files, install malicious software and take control of your computer. And when they're done, they'll demand an exorbitant price for the service they didn't really perform.

Microsoft warns that it does not make unsolicited calls like this and neither does its partners. Nor does any other legitimate tech firm.

Spotting imposter scams

While these scams may seem obvious in hindsight, it is often hard for the victim to understand what's really going on as it is happening. That's why it is important to know the warning signs. These tips were developed by the Federal Trade Commission:

  • Don't trust a name or number: Con artists use official-sounding names and they can "spoof" their phone numbers to make you trust them. They can make the caller ID display any number they want - a local police department, government agency, bank, credit card company or other trusted business.
  • Don't let anyone rush you: Scammers try to pressure their victims into action before they have had time to think. Always be wary of emails, texts, phone calls or phone messages that threaten serious consequences, such as arrest, deportation, shutting off your utilities, if you do not act immediately.
  • Don't wire money or use a prepaid debit card unless you personally know the recipient: Criminals prefer prepaid debit cards and wire transfers because it's like giving them cash. These transactions are difficult, if not impossible, to trace and once the money is gone, you can't get it back.
  • Watch for typos, strange phrasing and bad grammar: Scammers can easily copy a government seal, but awkward wording and poor grammar should be a red flag that the message is a scam.
  • When in doubt, make a call: Before you do anything, call the company or government agency that's supposedly contacting you. Use a phone number you know and trust, not one provided on the email or by the caller.