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."
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.
"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.