The IRS called me yesterday. I may not return for 3 years.

Last night I was picking up some adult beverages when my phone lit up. Incoming call from what Google’s Caller ID displayed as US Internal Revenue Services, from Oakland CA. Wary but curious, I picked up.

Immediately, the man knew my name and address. Score one for believably. “Paul White” gave me a case number and started to explain why he was calling: the IRS was doing an audit of all Americans to crack down on fraud, and I had under-reported income from 2010-2011 tax year by $1000 per month. I owed $850 in back taxes for that $12k, said the man.

I don't want to go to jail! "MM00014750x" from Florida Keys Public Library, Flicker CC-By-2.0
I don’t want to go to jail!
“MM00014750x” from Florida Keys Public Library, Flicker CC-By-2.0

I was uncomfortable and disbelieving. But it was also a heart-racing scenario if this were true. Al Capone went down like this. Was I next?

Paul put on the pressure that things were being recorded. I should be sure to be honest on this call, said Paul, because anything I said could be used against me. Could I say then and there, on this call, that I made an honest mistake and that I wasn’t trying to defraud the government? Absolutely, although I wasn’t the one who had prepared my taxes. That didn’t seem to matter.

I might need that $15 for an attorney. I might not have time to drink tonight.

Next came the threat. Tomorrow, said Paul, at 10am I would be served papers at my home address. I had a court time set for 2:30pm that same day, and I should be prepared with a criminal defense attorney. If I chose to fight and I lost this case, I was told I’d have to face 3 years jail time and up to $35,000 dollars for defrauding the US Government.

I was disbelieving, but that threat wasn’t a small consequence. My adult beverages were sweating on the counter. I wasn’t sure if I should buy them, I might need that $15 for an attorney. I might not have time to drink tonight.  The time crunch was on.

I asked Paul if I could look this case number up at the IRS website. No, only in a court, said Paul at 4:45pm when I’d have no time to make it to a courthouse.

This guy was good. The pressure was there. He knew things about me (that anyone could buy or find online, I understand). He had me worked up, slightly panicked, with a part of me believing this could, maybe, be possible. Or not.

When we panic, our brain enters freeze-flight-or-fight mode. A fully working brain has hundreds of options for the next step we take. A panicked brain limits those options to help ensure survival. Time Sensitivity, Threat of future losses, acting as an Authority, and Pacing all helped increase my panic. His Caller ID looked legit. He knew my information. We don’t think clearly in these situations.

Deep breaths help calm us, restore our faculties.

I didn’t really want to go to jail, didn’t want to leave my family behind, so I breathed deeply and I dug in more.

I asked what we could do to resolve this. He repeated the threats about the jail time and $35k fines. Then, acting as the savior, Paul said I could pay the back taxes, now on the phone, with a payment of $850. Otherwise, I’d have to go to court to prove I was an honest, well-intentioned, good person.

I wasn’t going to pay then and there, of course. I was suspicious from the start and it was getting weirder. If this was real, the US Court System doesn’t move nearly that fast. The whole “prove you’re a good person” is also not how our system works.

Otherwise, I’d have to go to court to prove I was an honest, well-intentioned, good person.

I am a good person.  I told Paul that I’d take my chances in court. He resigned the fight and hung up first. My beverages were waiting.


Fraudulent IRS calls are common and one of the biggest social engineering and fraud problems of 2016.

There are likely hundreds of variations on social engineering. Some, like this, are for cash. Other social engineering attempts gain our trust to eventually exploit it for business gain.

Please let your friends and family know that, according to the IRS website, if you’re surprised to receive a phone call from them, it’s not really the IRS.

If I have a court date this afternoon, I may not return for 3 years. But, I’ll probably be here Monday.

Update: In October of 2016, India arrested a group partially responsible for these fraudulent calls. They expect that there are still agents in the United States that helped to find targets and this may not be done. Always take care with these incoming calls claiming to know you!

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