NORWAY — The phone rang. Barbara Farrar answered, listened, and hung up.

“They said, ‘This is the IRS calling,'” said Farrar, 77, a retired clerical worker who recently lost her husband and is the great-grandmother of 34 (at last count.)

“They said, ‘We’re calling because you owe money,’ she said. ‘We need to discuss it with you’” and to call a certain number.

Farrar knew it wasn’t the IRS. She hung up on them and called police. She’s  worried her community is being targeted.

“The whole state is being targeted,” Maine Attorney General Janet Mills said Thursday. “Maine seems to be flooded with these calls. Over the last month, we’ve had hundreds of calls to our office.”

Norway police officer John Lewis said his department is getting a lot of calls like Farrar’s. For those who didn’t lose money, Lewis recommends they share the information with U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, whose office has been tracking the problem.

Farrar wouldn’t have done much about one call, but she got three on Monday.

“The last was nasty,” she said. “It was an antagonistic voice. They said I had been called several times. They said they had warned me” that she had to call them.

She called.

“The man came on and said he was the IRS,” Farrar said. No you’re not, she said. “I said, ‘You’ve called me three times today. Call me one more time and you are in big trouble. I’m calling the police.’”

He hung up on her. That last was “making me scared. I don’t scare easy,” Farrar said. “It’s an invasion of privacy. I’m not going to tolerate (it).”

Farrar did the right thing by hanging up, said Mills and IRS representative Mike Dobzinski. Dobzinski is the IRS spokesman for the states of Maine and Florida.

“It is a problem,” he said.

These kinds of scam calls started in October 2013 and have continued since. From October 2013 through March 2016, 16 Mainers have been victimized, paying $85,000 to IRS scammers, Dobzinski said. Nationally, there have been more than 5,000 victims who paid a total of $26.5 million.

“During the tax season, we see an upswing in phone scams,” he said. “There’s no state that is not included in this scam.”

Calls impersonating the IRS “is the scam on the rise,” said Jane Margesson, AARP’s Maine Communication Director. “This is the No. 1. scam across the country on our Fraud Watch hotline,” Margesson said. “People definitely get caught up. Callers demand immediate payment. The person on the other end doesn’t have a moment to think about it.”

Mills said those who have done work under the table without paying taxes are more likely to believe the calls are the IRS. Some pay out of fear and intimidation.

The callers can be relentless, aggressive and scary.

“What’s alarming is these calls get more threatening, saying they’re going to put you in jail, take away your license or deport you, trying to get you to pay up,” Dobzinski said. “I’ve listened to some of the calls recorded by taxpayers. They try to keep you on the phone to pay taxes with a prepaid debit card or wire transfer. We don’t ask for that.”

The scammers are sophisticated, can originate from anywhere, often use robocalls and disguise their numbers to make it appear they are the IRS on caller IDs, Dobzinski said. They call on landlines and cellphones, Mills said.

“The first tip we offer is hang up; don’t talk to them,” Dobzinski said.

The IRS doesn’t make calls out of the blue.

“We don’t use demand tactics, nor do we use threatening means,” he said. “If someone owes the IRS money, they’d get a letter first.”

Especially during tax season, “we’re trying to educate and inform the public not to get caught up in this scam,” Dobzinski said.

On Thursday, Margesson attended the Maine Sheriffs Association Conference in Portland. The IRS scam was discussed, she said.

“The more we warn each other,” she said, “the more we can stay safe.”

 

If you get a call from someone claiming to be the IRS:

“Hang up and do not engage these callers,” Attorney General Janet Mills said. If you engage for five seconds, they are going to persist. They do not stop easily.”

Report it to local police, also to AARP’s Fraud Watch Network hotline: 1-877-908-3360, and the IRS.

“Make sure it’s the IRS you’re talking to,” Mills said.

Anyone who gets a call like this is encouraged to share the information with the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration at its website, www.tigta.gov, or call TIGTA at 1-800-366-4484. (Caution: It can be tough to get through.)

Or call the U.S. Senate Aging Committee’s fraud hotline: 1-855-303-9470. (It works.)

Taxpayers are also encouraged to be alert to email scams using the IRS name. Never open any attachments or click on links in those emails. The IRS never requests personal or financial information by email, text or social media.

These scam emails should be forwarded to [email protected].