Portland police cut short a phone scam on Wednesday, coming to the rescue of a woman who thought she was paying the IRS with thousands of dollars worth of iTunes gift cards, police said Thursday.

The police got an anonymous tip about the woman buying the cards, and found her in a Portland parking lot, talking on her phone and with a pile of gift cards on the passenger seat of her car.

She told the officers she was on the phone with the IRS, and they were demanding she pay them in iTunes gift cards, according to Portland police Lt. James Sweatt. She told the officers she had spent hours getting the money from banks and then purchasing the gift cards.

“They would not let her off the phone, repeatedly threatening her,” police said. The suspects hung up when the officers asked to speak with them on the phone.

Sweatt said the 24-year-old woman lost $8,700 to the scammers before the police intervened.

“It could have been far worse,” Sweatt said. “Thankfully there was someone in the community” who tipped off police.


He said the woman, whom police refused to identify because she is a victim, told officers the call frightened her and when she sent an iTunes code, the scammers would demand more.

Phone scams have become fairly common, Sweatt said, and there is little recourse for victims to get their funds back. In this case, the number the scammers called from was deactivated and likely was computer-generated.

“These victims have zero chance of ever recouping their money in these scams,” he said. “We’ve seen people – young, middle-aged, seniors – be victimized this way, either tricked with clever gimmicks or threatened or coerced into believing they are talking to legitimate sources.”

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, the chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, issued a statement last month warning that iTunes and other gift cards are now the primary form of payment demanded by con artists pretending to be IRS agents.

“This most recent variation of the IRS impersonation scam demonstrates that these fraudsters are relentless in their desire to rob our nation’s seniors of their hard-earned savings,” Collins said.

At a hearing of the Senate Special Committee on Aging last year, the U.S. Treasury Inspector General told lawmakers that such phone scams are “the largest, most pervasive impersonation scam in the history of the IRS.”

The IRS has released a list of tips to identify phone scammers, saying that the agency will never call residents to demand immediate payment, or call without having first mailed a letter to the taxpayer; will never demand payment without allowing the taxpayer to appeal or question the amount owed; will never ask for credit card, debit card or gift card numbers on the phone; will never threaten law enforcement action for nonpayment; and will never require payment in the form of prepaid cards or gift cards.

Those who receive calls from people they suspect are scammers should hang up the phone.

Suspected scams can be reported to the Federal Communications Commission at https://consumercomplaints.fcc.gov/hc/en-us.

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