It started one typical Friday afternoon for graduate student Heather Helm, as she finished working on case notes in her office. At around 3:30 p.m. on Sept. 30, Helm received a phone call from an Abilene phone number, and a man with a heavy foreign accent on the other line claimed to be an IRS/FBI agent, Helm said. The man demanded Helm pay an “education tax” of $3,465. He threatened her, saying she needed to comply without getting off the phone or he would send local police to arrest her for tax evasion and freeze all of her assets.
Helm, marriage and family therapy graduate student from Stillwater, Oklahoma, googled the number and it matched the Abilene Federal Bureau of Investigation. Helm said the large amount the man asked for was close to what she paid for summer tuition. The so-called agent also mentioned different parts of her personal information, so she said she believed he was “legit.”
Helm was told by the “agent” to put the sum of money on Target gift cards. Although she said she felt borderline harassed by the “agent,” Helm complied because she had a clean record and wanted to keep it that way.
Realizing that she was being scammed, Helm tried to get the money refunded from the gift cards the next morning, but she was too late. The scammers had redeemed the entire amount and Helm said there was nothing Target, the IRS, or Helm’s bank could do to retrieve it.
“It sounds more stupid every time I tell this story,” Helm said, “but I’m not the only poor college student here. It is something I need to make aware so they don’t do this.”
ACU Police Chief Jimmy Ellison said he believes similar scams go highly unreported because the victim is “too embarrassed to talk about it.”
“It really aggravates me how mind controlling some of these scam artists can become,” Ellison said. “They play on your fear, and they play on your emotion and your good name. You have a good, clean record and you want to keep it that way. Unfortunately, you would be surprised how many people say, ‘What can I do right now to get this handled?'”
Ellison said the ACU Police Department receives one or two reports a year about this kind of scam. Although these crimes have a low solvability rate, ACUPD still encourages students to report these crimes because the students can be given proper resources and help the police department know these scams are occurring so they can make correlations and send out an advisory.
According to the Internal Revenue Service’s official website, irs.gov, the peak season for scammers is during filing season. However, students returning to school (and their parents) are being targeted by scammers demanding they pay a fake “student-tax.”
The IRS posted a list of things they would not do so taxpayers, and in this case, students and their parents, can detect an imposter. The four points are as follows:
1.) The IRS will not call to demand immediate payment using a specific payment method such as a prepaid debit, gift card or wire transfer. Generally, the IRS will first mail you a bill if you owe taxes.
2.) The IRS will not threaten to immediately bring in local police or other law-enforcement groups to have you arrested for not paying.
3.) The IRS will not demand that you pay taxes without giving you the opportunity to question or appeal the amount they say you owe.
4.) The IRS will not ask for credit or debit card numbers over the phone.