SAN RAMON -- The voice on the phone was "clear, strong and firm," recalled San Ramon resident Addy Behrouzi. The persuasive call made her stop in her tracks and forget everything else she planned to do that morning.
The male caller, who spoke to her last week, claimed he was calling from the Internal Revenue Service. He told her: "Your husband is about to go to jail," Behrouzi recalled.
The man told her that her husband hadn't paid $8,500 in debts to the IRS. The caller warned that if it wasn't taken care of right away, her husband could face imprisonment and her family could be deported, despite the fact that they have been citizens for many years.
Police say that conversation kicked off a two-hour phone call and journey through the San Ramon Valley, as the caller led Behrouzi step-by-step to the bank, and to three pharmacies, where she bought about 20 Green Dot "MoneyPak" pre-paid debit cards to pay off those looming debts.
By the end of it, the scammer had taken her for a ride -- in more ways than one. She was left with $8,500 less in her savings than when she woke up that day.
"I was totally fooled," Behrouzi said. "I did exactly what he wanted me to do. I was like a tool in his hands. I was like Play-Doh for a couple of hours."
Behrouzi is not alone. According to the IRS, she is one of many people nationwide who have fallen prey to what the IRS calls a "sophisticated" and "pervasive" telephone scam that especially targets recent immigrants. Victims are fooled into thinking that they owe money to the IRS and it must be paid promptly through a pre-loaded debit card or wire transfer -- or suffer the consequences.
San Ramon police Detective Jason Barnes said he knows of one other reported instance of the scam in San Ramon, which happened Nov. 11, the day before Behrouzi was scammed. But that first scam was averted when a convenience store clerk, who saw the victim trying to buy many pre-paid cards, warned the victim that it might be a scam.
Raphael Tulino, IRS spokesman for Northern California, said scam victims have popped up in nearly every state. But he first heard of victims, mainly South Asian Indian immigrants in Fremont, this summer. In fact, the IRS national office put out a news release warning of the scam two weeks ago.
He said the scammers use "pretty nuanced techniques" such as using fake names and IRS badge numbers and may even be able to fake the IRS toll free number on caller ID. Their calls can even sometimes mimic the sounds of a call center in the background.
"This particular scam is particularly sinister -- because it seems really convincing," he said.
But the bottom line is the IRS doesn't communicate by phone, and its first contact with a taxpayer on such an issue generally is via regular mail. Also it doesn't ask for credit cards by phone, nor pre-paid debit cards or wire transfers to pay for debts, he said.
Behrouzi said she never thought she'd fall for such a scam.
"But I was totally fooled," she said. "I was scared the whole time I was talking to the guy."
It bothers her even more knowing she was targeted because she was an immigrant. She immigrated from Iran to the United States in 1988 and has called San Ramon Valley her home for the past 15 years.
Yet, as a member of the Baha'i faith, she said she believes in the idea of peace and oneness and serving others, so she wanted to let others know what happened to her to help prevent others from being taken in.
"I wasn't expecting anything like this to happen to me ... but I thought, I'll go public with this to help others -- and who knows?" she said.
Contact Joyce Tsai at 925-847-2123. Follow her at Twitter.com/JoyceTsaiNews.
You could be getting scammed, if a phone caller:
Tells you that you owe thousands to the IRS that needs to be paid right away using credit cards, pre-paid debit cards or wire transfers
Threatens jail time, deportation or driver's license revocation if you don't pay
Uses common names and IRS badges to identify themselves
Calls from a spoofed IRS toll free number on caller ID, making it look as if it is coming from the IRS
Sends bogus IRS emails to support their calls
Uses background noise mimicking the sounds of call center activity
Calls back soon after and impersonates the local police or DMV
The IRS will NOT:
Call you to let you know of a tax issue; it would use regular mail
Ask for credit cards over the phone
Ask for debts to be paid with a pre-paid debit card or wire transfer
-- Source: Internal Revenue Service