IRS scam callers targeting New Yorkers have drained the life savings of a legally blind and disabled man from Long Island by convincing him to buy $12,100 in Target gift cards.
"I'm very depressed," said Howard, a Freeport resident who lives alone despite his vision problems and cognitive disabilities. He doesn't want his last name used for fear he'll be targeted again.
Howard's ordeal, which stretched over five days in early September, began when a person called saying he owed more than $3,000 to the IRS. This wasn’t the first time IRS scam callers had dialed Howard, the man said.
“Most of the phone calls in the past were like (we’re going to take) legal action,” Howard said. “But this one was quite threatening.”
This time, the caller said the sheriff's department would get involved if Howard didn't pay his debt in Target gift cards.
Scared, Howard immediately walked to his bank, withdrew cash from his account and took two buses to the Target store in Levittown, where he purchased $3,650 in Target gift cards. Once he got home, he read the numbers on the card to the caller. The numbers are all anyone needs to access the cards and anonymously spend the money.
“I was hoping it would be over then,” Howard said, his voice trailing off. But the caller was just getting started.
“The (next day) they asked for even more money - $8,450,” Howard told NBC 4 New York. And again, he complied. Over three days, he withdrew cash from his bank and made three trips to the same Target store in Levittown and one in Westbury, purchasing a total of $12,100 in gift cards.
“At no time during this process did he ever tell anybody, any relatives. He didn’t call me to say this was going on,” said Howard’s brother Curt, who has power of attorney over his accounts and only realized something was wrong when he noticed the massive withdrawals.
Once he realized what happened, Curt called the Freeport police department and confronted employees at Target in Levittown.
“How in the world when you see my brother going in there – you can tell that he has some cognitive problems and he’s disabled. Why wouldn’t anybody question him looking to buy thousands of dollars of gift cards,” Curt told NBC 4 New York. “You would think that was raising a lot of red flags. It should have been, but no.”
When contacted by NBC 4 New York, Target would not answer direct questions about Howard’s case. It’s also unclear if the company has a policy concerning the purchase of gift cards as it failed to answer repeated requests for a policy and none could be found online.
“We take a multi-layered, comprehensive approach to preventing theft and fraud that includes innovative programs and partnerships with local law enforcement, technology and team member training,” Target said in a statement. “We are aware of scams like these and are actively working with law enforcement.”
The National Consumers League (NCL), a non-profit advocacy group, believes retailers need to step up efforts to protect people like Howard because scammers are getting more sophisticated.
“If a front line employee is trained to spot that and question that, that could be a good way to address this quickly,” said John Breyault, NCL’s vice president, adding that “many merchants limit the amount of money that can be loaded onto any one card or limit the number of cards that can be purchased by an individual at one time.” He also suggests retailers could put a hold on gift cards so they cannot be spent immediately, and track who is using a card.
Federal authorities tell NBC 4 New York the use of gift cards in IRS scam calls is urgent.
“The impersonation scheme is the largest investigation in the history of our agency,” said William Kalb, special agent in charge of the New York office of the U.S. Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA), which investigates scam cases. Kalb said as much as 80 percent of the money being paid by victims is in the form of gift cards.
According to TIGTA, the tri-state area is a hot target for IRS impersonation scammers. New York ranks second in the U.S. for the number of victims. New Jersey is fifth and Connecticut is seventh.
While TIGTA and local authorities are working to stop the scammers, there is little they can do once someone like Howard becomes a victim. Both he and his brother are resigned to that now. Said Curt, “It’s pretty sad that someone would scam him out of his life savings in a few days.”
If you receive an IRS impersonation scam phone call, the feds want to hear from you. Their advice: hang up immediately and report the call at www.treasury.gov/tigta