For La Cañada resident Allen Koblin, what started last week with a voice mail message — ostensibly from the IRS — quickly turned into threats and a demand for $5,400 to fix years of alleged tax oversights.
Across town, Nalini Lasiewicz and her husband received a similar call Friday morning from a man claiming to be with the IRS's tax and audit department. He said legal action had been taken against her for her willful intent to defraud the agency.
Both callers had Indian accents, claimed the IRS had done a thorough review of years of tax filings and that troubling discrepancies had been found. If the residents wanted to avoid court or being arrested, they would have to act immediately.
"He identified the last four digits of my Social Security number and said there'd been evidence of some fraudulent activity," Lasiewicz said. "It sounded like he wanted to report us, or we were going to have to appear in court."
In recent weeks, what's being called the "largest ever" telephone fraud scam has touched down in La Cañada and the FBI, along with other agencies, is advising communities to be on alert for unsolicited callers demanding money transfers.
So far, more than 20,000 victims of the massive fraud in nearly all 50 states have been identified by the Office of the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration. Collectively, people have been defrauded of more than $1 million by an unidentified overseas group claiming to be IRS officials.
"The increasing number of people receiving these unsolicited calls from individuals who fraudulently claim to represent the IRS is alarming," said Inspector General J. Russell George in a statement issued by the agency in the wake of the reports.
"We want to make sure that innocent taxpayers are alert to this scam so they are not harmed by these criminals," George continued.
In Koblin's case, initial contact was made by a woman, who said the IRS had a matter of urgent concern that needed to be discussed. She left a call back number with a 202 area code, indicating the Washington, D.C., area.
When he contacted that number, a man answered but did not provide his name.
"He said, 'I'm going to tell you the situation. Do not interrupt me until I'm finished,'" Koblin recalled.
The caller said the IRS had attempted to deliver two written notices, but no one was home. Failure to respond, he added, could lead to the seizure of Koblin's personal assets, notification to his employer and possibly arrest.
Lasiewicz said the man who called her home spoke very poor English and could not hold a complete conversation. Her husband's repeated requests for someone he might better understand led to a hang up.
"He was unable to give us the pitch because we just couldn't understand him," she said.
Shortly afterward, Lasiewicz called a friend in Glendale to tell her about the scam and learned her friend had gotten a similar call the same day, during which a man asked for $2,500.
All three local victims notified authorities, including the Federal Trade Commission and IRS to the FBI and the office of Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank).
Schiff, who's received several calls this year from constituents about this particular scam, plans to hold an Aug. 4 forum on identity theft at the L.A. Zoo and Botanical Gardens.
Laura Eimiller, a spokeswoman for the FBI's Los Angeles division, said Tuesday such scams typically generate abroad and target affluent communities or senior populations.
"We're not going to arrest our way out of this problem," she added. "Hopefully, through education, we can advise people to never send money when they're solicited like that."