Scammers are stealing your money, angry taxpayers complain about paying taxes, and people disagree about, well, everything. Reality is never what it seems.
My cell phone rang the other morning, showing a number that I didn’t recognize. With all the annoyance of spam calls and sales pitches I’ve been getting – in fact, as I write this someone from Phoenix is calling me three times in a row – I ignored the call.
The voicemail message was a recorded man’s voice, sounding mechanical like a Siri or Alexa or Google Assistant that has even less humanity in it. “We found that there was fraud or misconduct on your tax filing,” the voice began, “that you are hiding from the federal government.”
The Internal Revenue Service will never call someone and threaten them over the phone, so this caller was definitely not the IRS. I will hazard a guess that most people do not often check in at the IRS’s website for helpful consumer tips, so not everyone knows this.
Impersonating a federal agent is a crime. That has not stopped thieves who for years have profited from scamming people out of their money. Now that we all have cell phones, the scammers have the perfect access to our brains: through a device that not only fits in our hand but is almost an extension of our own bodies. When people hear the scammer’s story, the set-up, through their personal device, I wonder if it alters their whole reality.
It is not the first time I got a call like this. I usually delete the message, however my anger and curiosity got the best of me. I dialed the number that the mechanical voice left on my voicemail. Law enforcement officials recommend that you do not do this. After several rings, someone answered.
“Inspection department,” said a young man’s voice in an accent I couldn’t quite place. I felt anger rising in me at the nerve of these people.
“Hi,” I said with a stammer that convinced no one. “I got a phone call from someone? Is there something wrong with my taxes? What’s going on?”
“Um… um… um…” he began, after a pause. Then he hung up.
I dialed again. Another man answered, sounding older and speaking in the accent I still did not recognize.
“IRS, may I help you?”
At that point, I’d had enough. I was furious. I did not want him to hang up on me, so I pounced.
“You guys are a bunch of criminals!” I hissed into the phone. “Who do you think you are? I’m reporting you to the government!”
Silence on the other end for two full seconds. Then I hung up.
I want my money back
Scams, grifts, bait-and-switches, money traps, cheats, swindles, and general thievery have been around as long as there have been people who have stuff worth stealing. That scammers are now using cell phones to separate people from their money is no surprise. What may be surprising is how it up close and personal it can be, how much it messes with someone’s reality.
People get sucked into the urgent story fed by a scammer posing as a government official, a raffle prize giveaway, or your family member kidnapped in another country. They pay thousands of dollars, just to make things right.
A common case is the “IRS agent” who tells you that you need to pay a big sum of money now because the police are coming to your door, right now, to take you to jail. This trick is widely documented. A story on National Public Radio’s program Planet Money drove the point home.
In the Planet Money story, a woman was threatened with jail by a fake IRS agent on the phone. Out of fear of being arrested she wired cash through MoneyGram, but MoneyGram’s security folks flagged the transaction as suspicious. At one point, this woman stood with a phone in each hand – one with the IRS scammer and the other with a man from MoneyGram’s security department – and she had to decide whom to believe. At first she couldn’t decide. Some victims never do.
The NPR reporter said that “shaking it off takes days, and looking back, she says, it was like she was in a trance or a spell.”
To get help after being scammed, or to get educated and avoid it in the first place, the Federal Trade Commission has plenty of information on its website. The FTC, which “works to prevent fraudulent, deceptive and unfair business practices in the marketplace”, is like the grizzled veteran cop who has seen it all.
At the time of this writing, you can learn about how the FTC halts an abusive debt collection operation, or how to avoid open enrollment scams (for Obamacare enrollments), or how to get your money back from Western Union.
In my fit of anger at the IRS tax scam that landed on my phone, I went to the FTC complaint page for reporting the scammers and I began to fill it out.
Where my taxes go when they’re not getting stolen
“I hate paying taxes,” said the owner of a marketing company where I worked in the very early 2000s. That comment reflected his political opinion that the government overtaxes all of those good, hard-working folks, and its vehemence stuck with me.
My boss was not bothered by the irony that our largest client was a government agency in California. We had a $2 million contract that was part of a major infrastructure program. You know, things like roads, sewers, freeways, airports: necessary things that are paid for with people’s taxes. Sometime after 9/11 a long narrative of politics took over, an election occurred, a court ruling was handed down. We lost the government client and I lost my job.
What I did not lose was the fraught connection between paying taxes and using the services that those taxes provide. And here lies our nation’s long, angry and unresolved debate about those taxes and those services. Yes, I sometimes struggle to pay my taxes, and yes, I complain every April 15 when it’s time to file with the IRS. And yes, I benefit from the things my taxes pay for: Police, fire protection, clean water, safe roads.
If someone else steals the money which I pay to the government, then that is infuriating. When someone complains about taxes because they are used for things they don’t like, that leads to angry questions with already-known answers.
What should the government do? Maintain an army for defense? Sure. Police and fire departments? Of course. Build roads, highways, ports and airports? Yes, say some; maybe not, according to others.
What about, say, affordable health care? Public education? Access to higher education?
What about funding research on gun violence? Doesn’t more information about how to prevent gun deaths seem like a great idea? In someone else’s reality, other than mine, it does not:
“In 1996, the Republican-majority Congress threatened to strip funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention unless it stopped funding research into firearm injuries and deaths. The National Rifle Association accused the CDC of promoting gun control. As a result, the CDC stopped funding gun-control research — which had a chilling effect far beyond the agency, drying up money for almost all public health studies of the issue nationwide.”
One way to notice our harshly different Red and Blue realities is to break that divide and squish us all together. A rare full eclipse of the sun in the summer of 2017 splashed across the whole of America’s midsection. A reporter for Bloomberg wrote that “Americans are divided not only in our opinions but in our very perceptions of reality. Psychologists tell us that our existing beliefs affect how we see the world around us. Then I went to rural Kentucky and witnessed a glaring exception [the eclipse].”
Marveling at the beauty and awe of nature alongside the town’s residents, the reporter concluded that “We may not vote the same way but we will always share something in common — a reminder of the mystery and beauty of the universe, and the brevity of our time on the planet.”
Perhaps with a little effort we can find our best, most common reality after all.
In November 2017, the House of Representatives passed a tax reform scheme that drove the wedge even deeper. Tax reform was promised to lower the taxes of millions of Americans. And yet, the industry I represent found that it actually raises the taxes of millions of homeowners. It eliminates access to healthcare for some 13 million Americans. Helpfully though, it provides a tax break for those who fly private jets.
Meanwhile, teachers have their own worries about this tax reform plan. When they pay for their own classroom supplies – already a shameful enough concept where an underfunded school district cannot afford classroom supplies – they would no longer get a tax break for those expenses, either.
There are plenty of stories on both sides of the divide. Are taxes going up or down? It’s not simple math. Who wins, who gets hurt? The answer depends on what reality one is living in.
Email is its own un-reality, even when from a famous English novelist
I realized with a shock one day last year that I would typically wake up in the morning, check my emails and see that my inbox might have 30 messages. Maybe two or three of them were from people I communicate with as part of my job. The rest? Spam. Ads. Newsletters. Pitches. Fraud.
Those unwanted messages could include an email blast offering financing or training to real estate agents, even though I am not a real estate agent. It could be one of those Nigerian email scams that are so badly written they’re actually hilarious.
Or it is a desperate fundraising pitch from a political party or candidate running for office – the kind of email pitch that since early 2016 I have been getting ten or more times a day, every day. Or it could be someone’s email newsletter that I did not sign up for, however I somehow found my way onto their mailing list because email list brokers often sell them to each other.
Or, the unexpected email might be a message from Jane Austen.
I was flattered that the famous English novelist, who introduced us to the dashing and wealthy Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice before she died in 1817, would find the time to send me an email. Jane seems to have a new job where she offers access to potential new customers in fields like Event Management, Food and Catering, Hospitality, and Manufacturing if I would just send her my list of personal contacts.
Jane’s fatal flaw may have been when she requested a “read receipt” that many email programs use to show that the intended recipient read your email. I rejected her request. Pro Tip: Do not ever never never request a return receipt. It’s patronizing, annoying, and an invitation for fraud. Are you not sure if someone read your email? Then pick up the phone and give him or her a call.
Email is a fantastic and convenient tool for communicating with people we know. It is utterly unreliable – a false reality – for communicating with almost everyone else. A businessman I knew some years ago told me about an email he received from someone claiming to have access to a gold mine or copper mine in Russia. His share would have been, he was told, worth millions of dollars.
“I don’t think the email is real,” he told me, “but what the heck, I might send them a few thousand dollars anyway because you just never know.”
Taxing Jane Austen’s windows
Around the time when Jane Austen was publishing her most famous novels – Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma, between 1810 and 1820 – people in England, Scotland and France had their own problems with taxes. “Window taxes” were an improbable source of both revenue for the government and grievance for the populace.
The government would impose a tax on the windows of your house. They were easy to count and hard to hide. The tax also had social consequences: the stately homes of the wealthy boasted many large windows to show that they could afford them, while the less affluent boarded or bricked up their windows, or lived in houses that were deliberately built with less. The poor sat in darkness in order to save what money they had.
Some historians and Austen fans describe the window tax as a way for the government to stop tax dodgers and counterfeiters. One of many blogs dedicated to all things Jane Austen described the push and pull between the Crown and its citizens:
“The window tax began in 1695 to help compensate for people clipping coins. This is a complicated situation, back then coins were often weighed, not counted. So what people could do was clip just a tiny bit of an edge so the weight would be within the deviation of the scale (we’re not talking digital precision here). Then you take those clippings, melt them down, and press a counterfeit coin with the King’s mark. It would be like if you could tear a little corner off a dollar bill today, take all of those bits and glue them together and print what could pass as a legitimate bill today.”
Another historic blog describes the Crown’s financial crisis brought about by coin clipping and “England’s various wars in Ireland and on the Continent.” Several hundred years later, little has changed: the government needs money for doing the kinds of things that countries do, and people in those countries don’t want to pay for them.
Jane Austen had other concerns though. As she published the novels that would cement her fame among the best writers in the English language, no one knew who she was. She published anonymously and her name was not revealed until after her death.
“Her nephew Edward Austen-Leigh wrote of how impressed he was with her decorum in always hiding her work and the fact that she wrote for publication, since female novelists were still often considered lude [sic] and indiscreet”. – The Anonymous Jane Austen
When Sense and Sensibility was published, the author’s only credit appeared as “By a Lady”. To no one’s surprise, it is not difficult to find #MeToo, the systematic repression of women, reaching back several hundred years.
Light and Darkness
On the website for reporting fraud to the Federal Trade Commission, I filled out the form and then saw a number to call for more information. I called it, a young man answered, and I gave him all the information I had.
“Thank you, sir,” he said. “We will forward this to our investigators so that they can look into it.”
Even though he said exactly what he was supposed to and followed the evidence-gathering procedures that his investigators require, it didn’t feel like enough.
“What else can you do?” I asked. “I just talked to these guys a few minutes ago. As you and I are speaking right now, someone is being defrauded this very minute!”
“Yes sir, I understand that,” he said. “The investigators will get this information and determine what to do with it.”
I sighed, thanked him, and got off the phone.
Will those scammers get arrested? Will unwitting victims stop getting hurt? The scams are more and more sophisticated. I feel more and more defensive. “Change your password!” I say to people whose password, “Password1”, hasn’t changed in years.
People in my corner of Blue State America have not stopped lamenting the staggering electoral loss of 2016 where Hillary Clinton, the sure winner, lost to Donald Trump. Angry and heartfelt theories began to bounce around and have not stopped: the tweets, the protesters, the Russian hackers. The walls built to keep people out. The bans based on one’s religion. Certain Americans who are made to feel unwelcome. The social media trolling.
One of the many Blue State ideas that have gathered both interest and scorn was that someone should move to a Red State area and get to know conservatives as our fellow Americans. Would that shine a light on all of us and show that we have enough in common?
Anger and hope, grief and acceptance. Alternative realities, fake news, alternate facts. Thieves trying to steal the money that I pay to the government so that I can enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world.
“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.” – Isaiah 5:20
It is easy enough to tell the darkness from the light, there next to each other. Isn’t it? Someone out there, I imagine, does not agree which is which.