Feds at Work: Cracking down on the biggest IRS impersonation scam in history
Worked on disrupting a fraud that conned Americans into paying bogus tax bills
It started in the fall of 2013 as a trickle of complaints from taxpayers who reported that individuals claiming to be Internal Revenue Service agents had telephoned them demanding they immediately pay back taxes or face arrest.
The fraudulent calls quickly turned into a nationwide deluge, becoming the biggest IRS impersonation scam in history. Some 1.8 million people received threatening phone calls, and an estimated 10,000 Americans were swindled out of $54 million.
As the scope of this costly and intimidating international telephone scam became evident, Timothy Camus, a deputy inspector general for investigations at the Department of the Treasury, stepped into the breach. He quickly organized internal and multiagency teams, and developed a comprehensive strategy to dismantle the fast-moving criminal enterprise, which involved money launderers across the United States.
The team’s work led to the indictment of 61 people in 2016, including 32 at five call centers in India, where the scam originated. Following those 2016 arrests, reports of the calls plunged by more than 90 percent.
In April 2017, police in India arrested a 24-year old man described as the mastermind, who was included in one of the indictments.
“Tim was the conductor,” said James Jackson, an assistant inspector general for investigations at Treasury. “He pulled everyone together to understand the big picture, and he helped identify the solutions and come up with new and novel ideas.”
“Their actions are truly making a lasting difference.” — Sen. Susan Collins of Maine
The IRS impersonation scheme had ever-changing variations, but generally the criminals accused victims, often seniors, of owing nonexistent taxes and penalties. They threatened arrest or civil lawsuits unless victims paid up immediately using money orders, electronic wire transfers or prepaid debit or gift cards.
One man was ordered to drive to a local department store and wire nearly $2,000 via a MoneyGram. He was so distraught he crashed his car on the way, but left the accident scene to wire the payment.
Camus, a 31-year veteran of the Treasury Department, worked with his team to devise a strategy to handle the torrent of complaints, disrupt the impersonators’ phone calls, warn the public of the fraud and help initiate domestic and international criminal investigations.
They collaborated with the Justice Department in the criminal probes, and also worked with the Department of Homeland Security, numerous local police departments, the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission.
Their work led to the apprehension of “people responsible for bilking America’s seniors from their hard-earned savings” and made it “harder for criminals to find victims,” said Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who chaired a Senate Committee on Aging hearing on the IRS scam.
“Their actions are truly making a lasting difference,” she added.
As part of their strategy, Camus and his team worked with telephone companies to deactivate the impersonators’ telephone numbers, published scam-related phone numbers on the internet, and, for the first time, deployed an auto-dialer to call the scammers back. The reverse robo-calling tactic tied up the impersonators’ telephone lines and sent a recorded message telling the scammers they were violating U.S. law, and that federal authorities were on to them.
“I saw it as my responsibility. This was an opportunity to protect innocent Americans.” — Timothy Camus
Camus and his team also sought cooperation from money-transfer vendors that the criminals used to accept stolen funds, such as Western Union and MoneyGram. His team coordinated with the telecommunications industry to identify new technology that could block scam-related international calls. The industry responded with a pilot program that stopped an estimated two million calls.
Meanwhile, the number of victims was increasing so fast, it was essential to alert the public. This was new territory for the normally tight-lipped inspector general’s office, but working closely with Karen Kraushaar, director of communications for the inspector general, Camus participated in more than 100 media interviews and provided testimony to multiple congressional committees.
He was dedicated to “bringing the bad guys to justice,” Kraushaar said, and is “one of those people who just really wants to get the job done.”
To bolster public outreach, the team worked Walmart, Target, Apple and other retailers to notify customers of the scam.
One of the biggest challenges was keeping up with continuously changing scam tactics and messages. There was a constant need to evaluate the situation and shift resources or come up with new strategies, Camus said.
“I saw it as my responsibility. This was an opportunity to protect innocent Americans.”
In addition to Kraushaar, Camus’ internal Treasury team included Assistant Inspectors General Mike Delgado, Randy Silvis, James Jackson and Gayle Hatheway.
During the height of the investigation, a scammer happened to call Camus at home on a Saturday, launching into the threatening routine, Kraushaar said.
“Your day will come,” Camus told the caller, and he and his team worked long hours to fulfill that pledge.
Timothy P. Camus and the IRS Impersonation Scam Team are finalists for a 2017 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal, or Sammies. Each year, the Partnership for Public Service honors federal employees whose remarkable accomplishments make our government and our nation stronger.