Phone Scammers Threaten Victims With Arrest, Collect Millions in ‘Fines’

Photo Courtesy of 401(K) 2013, Flickr

Photo Courtesy of 401(K) 2013, Flickr

The average American commits three felonies a day. That’s the estimate from Boston civil-liberties attorney Harvey Silverglate, who says the nation has so many vague laws, that honest people are constantly breaking them without even knowing it.

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So when scammers posing as employees of the FBI, IRS or U.S. marshals call people on the phone and tell them they’ve broken some law, who knows, it may even be true.

However, regardless of whether the person receiving the phone call has actually broken a law, the real FBI, IRS and U.S. marshals don’t call people up and threaten to arrest them unless they immediately follow instructions to pay thousands of dollars with a prepaid debit card.

Law enforcement officials have described these calls as highly intimidating. The scammer typically begins by advising the targets that there are federal charges against them, and then threatening legal action and arrest. If questioned, the caller gets more aggressive, warning of frozen bank accounts and confiscated property.

Next, the fake government agent says it will cost thousands of dollars in fees, taxes or court costs to resolve the matter and avoid arrest. Specific instructions are given on how to buy a prepaid debit card and make a payment within the hour. Sometimes the scammer insists on staying on the phone until the victim returns with the card and reads the numbers, warning that if it takes too long, the fees will increase.

The U.S. Marshals Service recently issued a warning that phone scammers impersonating marshals were calling homes in Cincinnati, Ohio. Authorities in Tennessee and Michigan also reported a holiday season uptick in this particularly nasty telephone fraud. And it’s happening in Los Angeles, too.

Woodland Hills resident Lucy Silva said she first received one of these threatening calls on her cellphone about two years ago, and the most recent one within the last month.

“He said if I didn’t send them $3,000 immediately, they were going to come right over and arrest me,” Silva said. “I happened to be in New York at the time, so I just said to him, ‘Hey, bring it on.’”

Silva, a hair stylist, said one of her clients received a scam call from someone pretending to be her grandson, stating that he was in Peru and needed money right away.

“Her grandson really was in Peru,” Silva said, “and this guy knew it. He even knew how many siblings he had.”

The scam was foiled when the grandmother quizzed the scammer about the names of her other grandchildren. He hung up the phone.

Impersonation scams are made easier with social media sites like Facebook, which display the names of friends and family. Be cautious about accepting “friend requests” from total strangers who live in places like Nigeria.

Many of these con games are phoned in from Third World countries. The caller’s phone number is sometimes spoofed so that a real law enforcement agency phone number shows up on the Caller ID.

Internet technology has made scamming much easier and more profitable, and so has the growth in the use of prepaid debit cards.

Americans now spend about $80 billion a year on prepaid debit cards, an amount that has doubled since 2010. But at least one of these products was pulled from the market because of its popularity with online and telephone swindlers.

Green Dot, a Pasadena-based company, stopped selling its MoneyPak product in 2014. The popular green-and-white payment cards had a unique numerical code on the back that allowed anyone who obtained the code, anywhere in the world, to “unlock” the money and “reload” another debit card, in complete anonymity.

In 2013, consumers lost $30 million dollars to scams involving MoneyPak cards, by Green Dot’s estimate. The Federal Trade Commission says consumers reported losing $42.86 million to fraud involving prepaid debit products that year, but officials suspect that the total could be much higher because many victims do not report that they’ve been scammed.

If you get one of these calls, the FBI advises, resist the pressure to act quickly. Always be cautious when someone insists that you must use a specific payment method, which the government would not do. If you feel threatened, call the local police department.

Or you could tell the scammer that the National Security Agency is monitoring your calls and wants you to keep all callers on the line for at least two minutes so they can get their coordinates.

Who knows, it may even be true.


  1. When these crooks call me, I tell them that I also work for ISIS, oops, I mean the IR↯↯ (Sorry, but it’s easy to get those two mixed up).
    I then tell them that I work out of the Atlanta office, and ask them which local office they work at.
    They hang up immediately.

  2. Dash Riprock says

    Someone tried to pull that kind of phone scam on me one time. I gave up a phony debit card number along with a phony pin. I have caller I/D
    with phone number. I called the FBI office where I live and gave them the phone information to see if they could trace the call. That was 2 years ago and haven’t had a scam call since.

  3. We had a similar call a month ago. Very intimidating at first. The guy had a lot of information about us. We have some legal affairs outstanding so who knows in this day and age whether we have unknowingly committed a felony or multiple felonies and misdemeanors? I insisted that the caller send the particulars in writing. Then we hung up to terminate the conversation. He hasn’t called back or written.

  4. Another important reason to leave the answer phone ON and screen all calls. I would say that 95% of all my incoming calls hang up without leaving a message, they are – in the scheme of things – so unimportant.
    The same applies to cell phones…..if you don’t recognize the number, or it is blocked, let it go to VM.

  5. I’ve had the Joy of a “Sherriff” telling me I missed a Jury Summons and I owed a fine or they’d come and get me, then another for the IRS. The Local Sherriff said to call the DA in Santa Clara County, they acted clueless about this. The IRS is too busy going after those terriorst Tea Party members to be bothered.

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