As federal tax refunds land in mailboxes, phone and digital scammers begin working in tandem to separate you from your check...the rest of your money...and the data that can invade your savings, credit and debit accounts.

Acting Monmouth County Prosecutor Chris Gramiccioni says that reports by the dozens are reaching his office, describing claims of IRS debts and big lottery prizes, with attitudes ranging from supportive and encouraging to hostile and threatening.

"The IRS does not call anyone out of the blue trying to collect back taxes and the lottery commission doesn't call to say you won," Gramiccioni said in prepared remarks. "These con artists are simply extorting money by means of fear, lies and intimidation. Their only objective is conning you into sending them money. Don't fall for it."

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More than a million reports of phone scams have been logged since October 2013, according to the U.S. Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA), and more than 5,770 people have lost more than $31,000,000 nationwide. New Jersey victims lost more than $1,500,000, placing it fifth among the 50 states for amounts paid to scammers.

"The first thing everyone must keep in mind is that there is never any money on the other end of the phone," Gramiccioni said.

"Think about it - every aspect of our lives thrives on paperwork. The IRS doesn't call you without warning to collect money. The State won't call you to inform you of lost property or uncollected money owed to you. The Lottery Commission wants to see your winning ticket. They have no reason to call you out of the blue. The old adage bears repeating: If it sounds too good to be true. It is too good to be true." Gramiccioni said.

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Increasingly, potential victims report receiving one call accusing them of owing money to the government, receiving contact number to arrange payment, then being told in the followup call, "Oh that must be a mistake. What's your name? Oh I have you on my list as a lottery winner. You won big!"

Anyone drawn in this far is then subjected to a full-scale emotional assault based on the "choice" of pulling in, or losing, a pile of money.

The scammer supplies instructions for paying a registration fee to process the "winning ticket," then later informs the victim that it's necessary to pay the taxes on the prize up front.

Scam calls invariably pop up unexpectedly. Callers seem to know a lot about you - name, address, perhaps the final four digits of your Social Security number - then go on to ask details that any legitimate agency would already have on file.

Many alter caller ID to appear to be from the IRS, and increase their credibility wih aliases and bogus IRS badge numbers.

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A hostile exchange typically involves thousands in back taxes and demands to pay it, or demands a tax payment for a big jackpot in a lottery that you don't even remember entering.

Lottery calls instill the fear of losing millions for not cooperating. Tax calls can lead to threats of police involvement, jail time, deportation, loss of a driver's license, even business closure.

Too smart to answer the call? Expect a message couched in "urgent" terms and directing you to call a bogus IRS agent.

Your Internet connection leaves you vulnerable as well, with phishing, malware and e-mail extortion schemes that can lead to freezing your computer and introducing invasive software that can vacuum up your sensitive information.

The IRS offers several red-flag markers.

  • The agency never calls to demand immediate payments, and doesn't call about back taxes without first sending notice by mail.
  • Tax agents never threaten arrest by any level of law enforcement, or demand payments without offering the opportunity for appeal.
  • They don't specify payment methods, such as prepaid debit cards. They don't ask for credit or debit card numbers by phone.

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    If you think, or know, that you owe taxes, a legitimate IRS agent can address it at 1-800-829-1040. If you have no reason to think you owe, report the encounter to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) web page or 1-800-366-4484.

    You can also file a complaint through the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Complaint Assistant. In the menu, choose "Other" and "Imposter Scams." If it's an IRS scam, include "IRS Telephone Scam" in the notes. The IRS web page also has a portal for reporting scams. Enter the term "scam" in the search box.

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