Scam Alert: The Fake Government Penalty

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Scammers are nothing if not clever.  Even in the depths of winter, they’re looking for new scams to perpetrate on unsuspecting victims.  Here’s a description of one whole “family” of popular scams and some advice on how to dodge them:

The scam begins with a phone call (or less often, a text message or e-mail) warning that you owe a penalty to some branch of government.  The caller (or author) will identify themselves as a government official, perhaps a court clerk or even police officer.  They’ll say that you’ve missed required jury service and must now pay a fine.  Or that you’ve been caught on film exceeding a speed limit and need to immediately pay the speeding ticket.  Or provide some similar concocted reason why you owe a fee.  Caller ID on your telephone may indicate that it’s your local police department or court calling.  Here’s the giveaway:  the caller will then helpfully offer to let you pay the fine immediately with your credit card or via direct withdrawal from your bank account; all you have to do is provide your card or account info.  Don’t do it!

Government officials are professionals.  Whether serving in your local police department, court clerk’s office or some other government department, government officials will generally initiate communications only in writing.  They want to maintain a written paper trail to make a clear record of communications.  What they won’t do is call you out of the blue!

So what should you do if you get a call from someone purporting to be a government official demanding money?  Ideally, you’ll use an answer machine to screen your calls, but let’s say you don’t use a machine and just pick up the call.  What then?

Hear the caller out –

  1. Then calmly request their name, official ID or badge number, address and phone number
  2. Politely end the call and then try calling the main number for that government department
  3. Ask if they have an employee by that name and ID or badge number and explain they were seeking money from you
  4. If no such employee exists, notify your local police department and, if the scam reached you as an e-mail, inform the Internet Crime Complaint Center at www.ic3.gov
  5. If the caller claimed to be from the IRS, also notify the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) at 800-366-4484 and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) through their website http://www.ftc.com

So the takeaway here is simply this:  Never give out your credit card number, bank account number or other personal information to an unknown caller!  Always write down such a caller’s identifying information and then confirm their identity before even considering calling them back.  That approach can save you some cold cash this winter.

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2 thoughts on “Scam Alert: The Fake Government Penalty

  1. We use an answering machine to screen calls and seldom pick up the phone. Recently we received a call where the name of the person and the agency were garbled, I presume purposefully, while the rest of the message was clear regarding some judgement against us. We have learned to ignore these calls but still feel somewhat violated that even through a phone message they have entered our home.

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