State officials warn of potential scammers

BARRE — Attorney General T.J. Donovan and other state officials are urging Vermonters to be vigilant against scammers as the state and federal tax filing deadline nears.

Donovan joined Vermont Tax Commissioner Kaj Samsom and others at a news conference at Capstone Community Action in Barre Monday to raise awareness of tax scams. The most common, Donovan said, is callers pretending to be from the Internal Revenue Service seeking back taxes owed to the federal government.

Attorney General T.J. Donovan warns Vermonters of potential scams as Tax Day nears. Roxbury resident Cheryl Willette, to Donovan’s left, recently received a call from fake IRS agents seeking money. (VPB/Neal Goswami)

Such scams increase as the annual tax filing deadline approaches, he said.

“March Madness is over. The April reality check is upon us. We’ve got two weeks to go,” Donovan said. “Here’s the thing, in those two weeks telephone scams are up with people calling Vermonters and threatening IRS action.”

The Attorney General’s Office saw a 25 percent increase in telephone scams last year, with over 4,000 invoking the IRS, according to Donovan. The best defense against such scams is to educate Vermonters about them, he said.

“What we’re doing today is raising awareness of this. What these scams do to everyday, hard-working Vermonters — they scare them. They threaten Vermonters with taking them to federal court. To freeze all their assets or to subject them to criminal penalties,” he said.

That’s exactly what happened to Roxbury resident Cheryl Willette. She said she received a voicemail message from someone claiming to be from the IRS earlier this month and called back to inquire about it.

“It was a very scary experience. I don’t want anyone else to fall prey to these awful scams,” Willette said.

The people she spoke to on the phone provided their names and even badge numbers as they provided her with information about her situation. The callers claimed she owed $6,821 in back taxes between 2010 and 2016. One woman she spoke to became “very stern” when Willette expressed doubts about the veracity of their claims.

“They were providing me with information and not asking for information, which led me to believe that this might be real,” she said.

Willette was threatened with legal action and even an arrest warrant if she did not work with the callers to resolve the issue. They said she could pay $200 to resolve the issue out of court, which would cover the cost of sending an IRS auditor to help settle her problem.

When she refused one man began swearing at her and she finally recognized it was a scam.

“I work in the finance field and found the information they provided as credible. They provided IRS form numbers that I was familiar with. They never asked for personal identification information. I want people to know that this is happening and what they should do in the event this happens to them,” she said.

Donovan said even people like Willette, who is the director of finance for the Washington Electric Cooperative, can be victims of such scams.

“This is sophisticated and I would say this — this is not just a scam, this is threatening behavior. Vermonters are being threatened and are getting ripped off by threat of going to jail, of having assets frozen, going to court,” the attorney general said.

Christopher Curtis, chief of Donovan’s Public Protection Division, said five Vermonters have reported paying money to scammers claiming to be from the IRS from 2014 to 2016. The amounts they reported paying $300 up to $17,000 “in one very unfortunate case,” he said. The total amount paid out by the five people was $36,972.

“Not everyone reports to our office, so our concern is there may be many more Vermonters out there who suffer serious economic injury as a result of this kind of illegal activity,” Curtis said.

Education is really the only way for Vermonters to avoid being scammed. Donovan admitted that prosecuting scammers is difficult because “most of these calls are originating from outside the state of Vermont.”

“The first part is the identity part, and that is extremely difficult,” Donovan said. “This is difficult. You have to get past the identity part here. That is a hard nut to crack, to be perfectly honest with you.”

Number of scams reported to the Vermont Attorney General’s Office in 2016. Graphic provided by the Vermont Attorney General’s Office.

Donovan said he could not comment on whether his office has current cases against alleged scammers. He admitted that there have been “very few” attempts to prosecute such cases.

“I’m not aware of a successful prosecution in Vermont of an IRS scam,” he said. “I think these cases are priorities and I think that in terms of protecting Vermonters we are going to make sure that we do just that and make sure that we fulfill our obligations of protecting Vermonters.”

Samsom also acknowledged that the next several weeks are the “perfect time to pounce on vulnerable Vermonters.” He said communications from the Department of Taxes will never ask for personal or confidential information over the phone. If Vermonters are uncertain if a call is a scam they should hang up and call the Vermont Department of Taxes or the IRS to confirm.

Anyone who receives a call they believe to be a scam should report it directly to the Attorney General’s Office or the IRS, Donovan said.

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