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Howard warns about IRS phone scam

NEW YORK -- There’s a scam sweeping the country and Mary Vanessendelft of Suffolk County has paid a heavy price because of it.

“Oh, I’ve got nothing,” Mary told us. “I’m just trying to hold on to the house.”

All because last fall she got phone calls from someone claiming to be from the IRS. He knew a lot about her family and told her if she didn’t pay a debt supposedly due right away then her son, Warren, would be arrested.

Warren is mentally challenged but has a job. And Mary was terrified for him. She was also vulnerable because she’d been through the death of her husband and health crises for herself and one of her daughters. She went to the bank and got the money.

But the scammers didn’t let up. They stayed after Mary. That’s what they do with targets. They keep squeezing them until they can’t get any more.

“Every morning they’d call me and say there’s a discrepancy in the following year and the following year and I’d have to go back to the bank and get more money out.”

Each time they got Mary to withdraw thousands of dollars from her bank, and drive to deposit it at another bank or mail a MoneyGram. This went on for about 10 days.

“Until the last phone call I said to him I just don’t have no more. You’ve taken everything I’ve got. And they said well you have six children.”

Mary called one of her sons. He recognized it was a big scam. But by then Mary had lost almost everything. She was out $100,000.

Mary’s daughter, Darlene Alese, actually spoke to one of the scammers when he kept calling.

“When he said that he was gonna come arrest us I said come on down. I’ll be waiting outside for you. And of course nobody came down. But he made it sound like there was somebody in the car. Like he was starting a car up and let’s go get them. That’s what he said.”

The feds say this insidious scam had duped more than 5,000 people for more than $25 million dollars.

There’s not much that can be done in most cases. Scammers are often based outside of the country. And phone numbers they use may be almost impossible to trace. How did they know so much about Mary’s family? Possibly through her husband’s obituary -- which often contain a lot of information.

What should you do to protect yourself and family? Talk to senior relatives. Make sure they know about the scam. And if a crook does call, hang right up. Don’t engage in any conversation.

And realize that the real IRS does not cold call anyone. If there’s a real problem you’ll get a real letter from them first explaining the situation and telling you how to make contact.