These cons, in which hucksters impersonate government officials, rank No. 3 on the Federal Trade Commission’s list of top consumer complaints for 2014.
Only complaints about identity theft and debt collection ranked higher than imposter scam complaints, which made up 11 percent of the more than 2.5 million complaints received.
The increase in imposter scams was led by a sharp increase in complaints about IRS and other government imposter frauds, the FTC said.
We’ve told you about IRS imposter scams before. You might receive a phone call or an email from someone claiming to be an IRS agent, notifying you that you’re delinquent on your taxes. That if you don’t pay fees and back taxes immediately, a warrant will be issued for your arrest. The scammer then instructs you to wire money, or to pay the supposed fine by another hard-to-track method, and he takes off with your cash.
But the IRS isn’t the only government agency these bad guys impersonate as they try to get money from unsuspecting consumers. Watch out for these other government imposter scams.
THE BUREAU OF DEFAULTERS
This one comes in email form: a court notice from the Bureau of Defaulters Agency-FTC. The message says you’ve ignored the agency’s attempts to contact you, so now your Social Security number is on hold by the federal government. You’ll be prosecuted for fraud, and owe lots of penalties and fees. You must respond within 24 hours, or else.
And attached, the email says, you will find your arrest warrant.
It’s a fraud, and the FTC says there is no such agency as the Bureau of Defaulters, and the FTC doesn’t send emails like that one.
In this scam, the caller may know a frightening amount of personal information about you. He says he’s from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and the caller may know your name, your address, and even what kind of visa you’ve applied for.
You may then be threatened with arrest or deportation, or at the very least told that your chances of getting your immigration paperwork is at risk — unless you pay money immediately.
The FTC says fraud has gotten even more believable because some scammers have spoofed the real USCIS phone number.
If you get this kind of call, contact the real USCIS to check your status and report the fakery. The number is (800) 375-5283.
You’ve probably heard about sweepstakes or lottery scams, in which the caller or emailer says you’ve won millions in an international or out-of-state contest. In this version of the scam, with a new twist, you receive a call or email from a government official with great news: You’ve won a federally-supervised sweepstakes or lottery.
The scammer may identify himself as being an agent with the National Sweepstakes Bureau — which doesn’t exist — the “National Consumer Protection Agency,” or even from a real agency such as the Federal Trade Commission.
To claim your big prize, you may have to pay taxes or fees, or pay for insurance coverage of your prize to Lloyd’s of London or another well-known insurance company, the FTC said.
Then you’ll receive instructions on how to wire money for those costs.
But this, too, is a fraud.
FAKE DEBT SCAMS
Most often, these frauds come in the regular mail, but you could get an email, too.
The official looking document, which includes your name, address and frighteningly, it often has your real Social Security number. The letter, written by a fake debt collector working for an attorney’s office or on behalf of a government agency such as the IRS, a specific judge or a local law enforcement agency, says you owe big money. And if you don’t pay, you’ll end up in court or with an arrest warrant in your name.
But it’s not for real.
If you think you may really owe a debt, get the real number for the government agency that supposedly contacted you so you can independently confirm the alleged debt.
When the phone rings or the email arrives, this time it’s from a special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Your name was found on a document inside a suitcase or two that was confiscated at the airport. Inside the baggage? Millions of dollars, or maybe even drugs.
The fake FBI agent may even email you a copy of his badge and a photo identification card.
You can resolve this matter, of course, by wiring money.
You can confirm this is a scam by calling your local FBI office. You can find contact information for your local field office here.
WHERE TO REPORT THE SCAMS
If you get a fake call or email, the FTC asks that you file a complaint at ftc.gov/complaint.
Make sure you include the date and time of the call, the name of the impersonated government agency, the phone number of the caller, and all the details of the call.
You should report IRS scams directly to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) online or you can call (800) 366-4484.
If you receive a call or email from someone purporting to be from another government agency, you can report that directly through the agency’s web site.
Save the scam emails, too, so you can forward a copy to the agencies. For the FTC, that email address is email@example.com.
Just make sure you don’t open any attachments or click on any links inside those emails.
And if you’re targeted for a scam that Bamboozled hasn’t featured before, let us know about it so we can help educate and protect other consumers by sharing your story.
Have you been Bamboozled? Reach Karin Price Mueller at Bamboozled@NJAdvanceMedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @KPMueller. Find Bamboozled on Facebook. Mueller is also the founder of NJMoneyHelp.com.