Picture this. You’re sitting at home when you get a telephone call from an unknown number. When you answer, the caller on the other end identifies themself as a government employee and informs you that a police officer will soon be at your doorstep to arrest you. The caller urges you to check the telephone number that appeared on your phone. Sure enough, it matches a government agency. You are caught off guard. And worried.

You owe back taxes, the caller says.

The only way to avoid being taken to jail or to court is to purchase gift cards and read off the numbers to the government official.

By now, perhaps you realize you’ve been duped. Caller I.D. telephone numbers can be spoofed. That “government official” with a badge number is in fact a con artist, a government imposter. And if you’re one of the victims called by these scammers, you aren’t alone.

A new study from the Better Business Bureau reveals that 44% of Americans have encountered a government imposter scam. BBB estimates victims have collectively lost hundreds of millions of dollars to these cons. Law enforcement officials say they receive hundreds of thousands of complaints. Complaints to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have totaled $450 million in losses since 2015.

Whether the scammer purports to be a tax official, a representative from the Social Security Administration or a law enforcement officer, these con artists have a few things in common. Their con is predicated on using fear and intimidation to trick victims into turning over personal information or money, (often in the form of gift cards). These scammers also threaten legal action or jail time if you don’t pay up. Scammers may tell consumer that their Social Security number has been associated with a crime, or may threaten to deport recent immigrants or arrest people for missing jury duty.

BBB urges consumers to be wary of callers claiming to be from a government agency. Government officials will not cold call and threaten you. They will never demand payment via gift cards.

Here’s what to do if you’ve encountered a government impostor scam:

IRS: The Internal Revenue Service advises people to fill out the “IRS Impersonation Scam” form on the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Impersonation’s website, tigta.gov, or call TIGTA at 1-800-366-4484.

Social Security: The Office of the Inspector General, Social Security Administration (SSA IG) has its own online form to take complaints about frauds impersonating the SSA.

Contact your cellphone carrier, which may offer free services such as scam call identification and blocking, ID monitoring, a second phone number to give out to businesses so you can use your main number for close friends or a new number if you get too many spam calls.

File a report with BBB Scam Tracker.

The more you know, the safer you’ll be. Learn more at bbb.org/fakegov.

Rebecca Barr is Boise Marketplace Manager of the Better Business Bureau Northwest + Pacific, serving the Snake River Region from Ontario to Jackson, Wyoming. For more information, visit bbb.org or call (800) 218-1001.

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