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Money Transfer Companies Fight Back Against IRS Scammers


There's a phone scam going around. Maybe you've even gotten one of the calls. Someone claims to be an IRS agent, says you owe money on back taxes and that you need to wire the money immediately. The companies that handle wire transfers do not like this. Alex Goldmark from our Planet Money podcast tells us how one of them is fighting back.

ALEX GOLDMARK, BYLINE: The phone rang on a Thursday.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yet, it was Thursday, and I was about the see ten clients in a row. I'm a therapist.

GOLDMARK: We're not going to use this woman's name because she's worried how this story could hurt her business. Here's how the scam went for her. The woman calling saying, I'm with the IRS; you owe back taxes. The police are on their way to arrest you right now. And just then, another call on the other line comes in with the caller ID showing 911, and it's a man saying he's a police officer on his way over. It is fast-paced, tense and confusing.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I'm all by myself, and I'm, like - I'm picturing - oh, my God, I'm going to go to jail, and this is going to be really hard on my kids.

GOLDMARK: The fake IRS agent calls herself Eva, and she gives very specific instructions for how to send the money. She says, go to an ATM, take out a bunch of cash and wire it. Use a particular company, MoneyGram.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: She says to me, you have to stay on the phone with me the entire time.

GOLDMARK: She does as she's told, goes to the MoneyGram branch, wires the money. And a little while later...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And all of a sudden, Eva get back on the phone and she say, I'm sorry; I have really bad news for you. The transfer didn't go through. And I'm like, what? What are you saying? Like, how is that even possible? It went through. I have a receipt.

GOLDMARK: MoneyGram had stopped her transfer because it looked suspicious. This happens often enough that they have a system for dealing with it. So when the therapist says to the clerk at MoneyGram, the money didn't go through; I want to send it again, the clerk says, hold on, makes a call and passes over the phone. And now, here's where our therapist's day turns from terrifying to disorienting. She's now holding onto two phones - the fake IRS agents on the cell phone in one hand, and someone from MoneyGram in a second phone in her other hand. MoneyGram gave us a recording of that call.


ARIS: My name is Aris (ph) from MoneyGram.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Aris from MoneyGram?

ARIS: Yes, my name is Aris, madam, yes.

GOLDMARK: He says, can I ask you - who are you sending this money to?


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: They are attorneys.

ARIS: And you know them in person, madam?


ARIS: I have a bad feeling about it, madam.

GOLDMARK: I have a bad feeling about it, he says.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: OK, you know what? Can you - can you hold on for one moment - because I need to just be sure that I'm doing the right thing, so one moment.

ARIS: Are you sure, madam? Please elaborate.

GOLDMARK: She now turns to the cell phone in her other hand to talk to the scammers and tell them what MoneyGram is saying and then comes back.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: OK, hello. Go ahead.

GOLDMARK: Aris from MoneyGram asks her more questions gently.


ARIS: And they tell you that if you don't pay the fees then you will go to jail, is that right?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yes, I'm going to be arrested instantly. I got a call from 911.

ARIS: Actually, you are being a victim of a scam. Are you aware of it?


GOLDMARK: He switches from questions to statements. Those people are fake, he says. He says it multiple times. For a while, she's listening, two phones in two hands, unsure what's real.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: What do I do? I mean, what do I do? I'm terrified that I'm going to be...

ARIS: Don't worry. Nothing will happen, madam.

GOLDMARK: It's over. I got a hold of Aris from MoneyGram, the man who talked her back to reality. He says he can get 20 calls like this a day. Sometimes, it takes 30 minutes for the people to snap out of it. Our therapist call - it took nine minutes. And looking back, it feels like she was in a trance or a spell.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: When I had the two phones in my hand, I was thinking - it's almost like, which reality do I prefer? And I prefer the reality where they're saving me and my money is somewhere and I'm going to get it back and I'm not being arrested. It was - but it was, like, this flip in my head right at that moment.

GOLDMARK: The IRS says thousands of people have fallen for this scam, losing tens of millions of dollars. Alex Goldmark, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alex Goldmark is the senior supervising producer of Planet Money and The Indicator from Planet Money. His reporting has appeared on shows including Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Radiolab, On The Media, APM's Marketplace, and in magazines such as GOOD and Fast Company. Previously, he was a senior producer at WNYC–New York Public Radio where he piloted new programming and helped grow young shows to the point where they now have their own coffee mug pledge gifts. Long ago, he was the executive producer of two shows at Air America Radio, a very short term consultant for the World Bank, a volunteer trying to fight gun violence in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, and also a poor excuse for a bartender in Washington, DC. He lives next to the Brooklyn Bridge and owns an orange velvet couch.
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