Friday, March 18, 2011

Still Life with Robin: Phone-y Call

by Peggy Robin

I’m not a very gullible person; I’ve never been taken in by an email scam. I know as soon as I see the subject line, or the FROM line with an unknown name, to delete the junk unread. Well, most of us know to follow that advice. But it’s been so long since I’ve been on the receiving end of a telephone scam that perhaps my B.S. antennae for that medium have become a bit rusty. That may explain why I came close to falling for the call I received about a week ago. Here’s how it went:

The phone rang. I picked up and heard the well-modulated voice of an older woman, efficiently identifying herself at the outset as an agent for the IRS. She asked for me by my full name, and I confirmed that she had reached me. She said she was calling about the documents I had submitted; she needed to go over some information. What made me particularly susceptible to this phone call is that we do indeed have an open (although minor) dispute with the IRS. We had recently sent off some documents that the IRS had requested. So it seemed very plausible that someone would call to check on something in those papers. Perhaps I had forgotten to include one of the requested forms? Or neglected to sign something. That explains why my guard was down a bit.  I waited for her to tell me what the problem was.

She first said that she needed to confirm my identity before discussing the matter. Then she asked for my social security number. That’s when the alarm bells most definitely should have started ringing. But because I was speaking to an older woman, who sounded well educated, speaking firmly, as if she knew her business, I still thought the call might be legit. On the other hand, I do know better than to give my social security number to a complete stranger over the phone. So I said, “My social security number is already on my file. You can understand that I’m not going to give it over the phone.”

“Of course,” she said, not arguing. “But Just to confirm that I have the right person, could you give me the last four digits?”

I told her I would not give out any part of my social security number. I was now feeling that it was likely -- no matter how professional she sounded -- that she was a scammer, but on the other hand, if there really was a problem with my case, I didn’t want to be rude to her. Who knew what impact that might have on the outcome? I thought of a way to test her. “Let me call you back at your office,” I said. That’s when her story fell apart. She would not give me a government office telephone number to call back, explaining, “They have just changed the telephone system here, and no one has been assigned an extension.”

I knew how unlikely that was to be true, and yet I could not entirely dismiss the small chance that she was who she said she was. I guess it’s a prejudice I have in favor of my own gender and age group: I just have a hard time imagining this very business-like voice of a mature woman being that of a criminal. We are just not the demographic to be that way. Although the odds were heavy on the bet that she was trying to scam me out of my identity and possibly my life savings. If she had been a he, or had sounded younger, I know I would have hung up a long time ago. And I wouldn’t have been polite about it, either. But I did say the right thing in this case: “I would prefer not to discuss my case by phone. Just send me something in the mail letting me know what information you need.”

My caller seemed fine with that, completely understanding of my reluctance to disclose anything to her. “Certainly,” she responded. “I’ll get it right out to you.” She said goodbye and hung up. As soon as the call ended, I realized two things: 1. She had not tried to confirm my address, which is something people normally do before they mail you something, and 2. If she was from the IRS and was calling about my open case, why didn’t she mention the case number? I should have asked her to hold while I got my IRS notice and I should have immediately asked her to read off the case number to me. (Don’t you always think of these things too late?)

Now for the part you knew was coming: That “mailing from the IRS”? I’m still waiting. It’s been more than a week, and even with our abysmally slow mail, I should have had it by now, if my caller were anything other than a liar and a fraud. Case closed.

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