It started in the fall of 2013 as a trickle of complaints from taxpayers who reported that individuals claiming to be Internal Revenue Service agents had telephoned them demanding they immediately pay back taxes or face arrest.
The fraudulent calls quickly turned into a nationwide deluge, becoming the biggest IRS impersonation scam in history. Some 1.8 million people received threatening phone calls and an estimated 10,000 Americans were swindled out of $54 million.
As the scope of this costly and intimidating international telephone scam became evident, Timothy Camus, a deputy inspector general for investigations at the Department of the Treasury, stepped into the breach. Camus quickly organized internal and multiagency teams, and developed a comprehensive strategy to dismantle the fast-moving criminal enterprise that originated at call centers in India and involved money launderers across the United States.
The team’s work led to the indictment of 61 people in 2016, including 32 individuals at five call centers in India. The indictments went a long way to shutting down the massive scheme. In April 2017, police in India arrested a 24-year old man who was included in the one of the indictments, and was described as “the mastermind” of the call center scam. After the 2016 arrests, reports of the calls plunged by more than 90 percent.
“Tim was the conductor,” said James Jackson, an assistant inspector general for investigations at Treasury. “He pulled everyone together to understand the big picture, and he helped identify the solutions and come up with new and novel ideas.”
The IRS impersonation scheme had a number of ever-changing variations, but generally the criminals accused victims, often seniors, of owing nonexistent taxes and penalties. They threatened arrest or civil lawsuits unless victims paid up immediately by money orders, electronic wire-transfers or prepaid debit or gift cards.
One man, for example, was ordered to drive to a local department store and wire nearly $2,000 via a MoneyGram. The taxpayer was so distraught that he crashed his car on the way to the store, but left the scene of the accident to wire the payment.
Camus, a 31-year veteran of the Treasury Department, worked with his team to devise a strategy to handle the torrent of complaints, disrupt the impersonators’ phone calls, warn the public of the fraud and help initiate domestic and international criminal investigations.
Camus and his Treasury team collaborated with the Justice Department in the criminal probes, and also worked with the Department of Homeland Security, numerous local police departments, the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission.
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who chaired a Senate Committee on Aging hearing on the IRS scam, said the work of Camus and his team led to the apprehension of “people responsible for bilking America’s seniors from their hard-earned savings” and made it “harder for criminals to find victims.”
“Their actions are truly making a lasting difference,” Collins said.
As part of their strategy, Camus and his team worked with telephone companies to deactivate the impersonators’ telephone numbers, published scam-related phone numbers on the internet, and, for the first time, deployed an auto-dialer to call the scammers back. The reverse robo-calling tactic not only tied up the impersonators’ telephone lines, but a recorded message told the scammers that they were violating U.S. law and that federal authorities were on to them.
In addition, Camus and his team sought cooperation from money transfer vendors, such as Western Union and MoneyGram, that were used by the criminals to accept stolen funds. His team also coordinated with the telecommunications industry to identify new technology that could block international calls related to the scam. The industry responded with a pilot program that blocked an estimated two million calls.
Meanwhile, the number of victims was increasing so fast it was essential to alert the public. This was new territory for the normally tight-lipped inspector general’s office, but working closely with Karen Kraushaar, director of communications for the inspector general, Camus participated in more than 100 media interviews and provided testimony to multiple congressional committees.
Kraushaar said Camus was dedicated to “bringing the bad guys to justice” and is “one of those people who just really wants to get the job done.”
To bolster public outreach, the team worked with retailers including Walmart, Target and Apple to notify customers of the scam.
One of the biggest challenges was keeping up with the scammers’ continuously changing tactics and messages. Camus said there was a constant need to evaluate the situation and to shift resources or come up with new strategies.
“I saw it as my responsibility. This was an opportunity to protect innocent Americans,” he said.
In addition to his communications work with Kraushaar, Camus’ internal Treasury Department team included Assistant Inspectors General Mike Delgado, Randy Silvis, James Jackson and Gayle Hatheway.
During the height of the investigation, one of the scammers happened to call Camus at home on a Saturday, launching into the threatening routine, Kraushaar said.
“Your day will come,” Camus told the caller. In the months that followed, Camus and his team worked long hours to fulfill that pledge.