It's not your imagination — tax extortion scams are skyrocketing

Key Points
  • "We can't arrest our way out of this situation," the FBI's financial crimes section chief said Monday.
  • Victims lost $83 million to extortion scams, which frequently target individuals who are worried they owe a tax bill.
Financial schemes and scams were most frequently reported to have stemmed from a phone call.
sturti | Getty Images

You're not imagining it. Extortion schemes, many of which start with robocalls and hinge on convincing you to pay taxes to scammers posing as the IRS, rose 242% year-over-year, according to the latest data from the FBI.

The FBI received 51,146 complaints from people who reported losing $83 million to extortion scams overall, which have become highly automated and fast. The data is collected and tracked by the bureau's Internet Crime Complaint Center, known as IC3.

"We can't arrest our way out of this situation because there are too many con men out there," said Steven D'Antuono, section chief of the FBI's D.C.-based financial crimes section.

D'Antuono says that he personally fielded five robocalls trying to scam him out of his tax and financial information on Monday.

The scams typically start with an automated call to the victim's cell phone, including a dire warning about taxes owed. If the individual calls back, fraudsters then work to convince the taxpayer that he or she must immediately pay the sum.

Often, D'Antuono said, the scammers will provide the targeted person with a phone number that is supposed to be a local law enforcement or IRS office. In fact, it's a fraudulent number leading to another criminal who reinforces the scheme. Victims send money in a variety of ways, including by wire or check. In some cases where victims were too scared to wire money, fraudsters have been able to convince them to buy gift cards and send the necessary information for the criminals to cash them out. He said some more recent versions of the scheme may also request victims make their payment in bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies.

A criminal can net a few thousand dollars in a single, successful theft, he said, and they have "gotten very, very aggressive of late. We've heard a lot of reports of threats that they're going to come to [victim's] house, they're going to arrest them."

D'Antuono said he expects many scammers will wait to ramp up the fraudulent calls until after April 15, when the majority of Americans will have filed their tax returns. That's a natural time to tell people that they got something wrong on their returns and that the IRS is "following up."

He emphasized that the IRS will never contact taxpayers by phone or email about any taxes owed, only by mail. Individuals should ignore the calls, he said, and report any unsolicited or questionable request for money to the FBI's IC3 tip line.

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