Scammers hit local victim, are (mostly) foiled

By Donovan Graen via FlickrBy Donavan Graen via Flickr

A Woodville resident revealed this week that she was conned earlier this month out of a large sum of money by the operators of a telephone scam in which callers posed as agents of the IRS and Treasury Department.

Unlike many who succumb to the ploy, most of her stolen money will be returned to her, she says, thanks to quick action by investigators for the two banks involved, the Rappahannock County Sheriff’s Office and the Treasury Department.

Petrina Huston says she agreed to make her story public in hopes it might save others from falling for the same scheme — in which a series of callers to her home earlier this month threatened her with fines, court actions and even incarceration if she did not immediately pay a five-figure amount the callers claimed was overdue to the IRS.

“They said I had not responded to two registered letters, and they knew my address,” she said Tuesday. “And that was the hook, for me,” she added, explaining that for several months late last year, she was preoccupied with her mother’s failing health, traveling back and forth to McLean — and then was emotionally devastated by her mother’s death in December.

“It was a crazy time. I just could not remember if I’d seen any of those little orange certified-letter cards,” Huston said. “And so I panicked.”

In her panic, she drove to Centreville, prodded to deposit money in an account at the CitiBank branch there by the callers — all of whom had what she believes were East Indian accents (though their names were invariably American-sounding, including one “IRS agent” who called himself Leroy Jones); the initial message was left by what sounded like an American English speaker. The initial callers were stern, even abusive; several later calls came from a friendlier man who said his name was Jacari Caldwell, Huston said.

“Leroy Jones” guided her, on her cell phone, to the bank, providing the deposit information and assuring her that someone would visit her home the next day and deliver a check for a partial refund — but only if she paid the amount he said was due that day. Between his calls, she managed to reach her accountant, whose reaction, she said, was simply: “This is a scam.”

Huston says she hoped that the check transaction — not the scammers’ choice; they first demanded she use an ATM card, wire transfer or cash — could be reversed. As it turned out, she was partially right, and partially lucky.

IRS scam tip sheet

AARP has a helpful page on IRS ID theft and IRS imposter scams here.

TIGTA’s IRS imposter scam reporting page is here.

The next day was Rappahannock’s last winter snowstorm; no one from the “IRS” called or came by. She started making phone calls the next morning, a Friday, reaching RCSO investigator Shawn Walters, who emailed her a fact sheet created last year by Sheriff Connie Smith after reports of similar phone scams in the county started reaching her desk; it included contact information for the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA), which investigates fraud involving IRS or Treasury agent impersonation.

At the same time, Walters phoned TIGTA, PNC and CitiBank, and helped persuade them the case was worth pursuing.

Though her check had cleared her own bank account at PNC Bank, CitiBank investigators froze the deposit account the following Monday — but not before someone had withdrawn several thousand from an ATM machine in Riverside, Calif., according to Huston.

Walters says the man making that withdrawal was captured on video and has been identified, and allegedly works as a “mule” for what is believed to be an extensive overseas scam operation.

The case is actively being investigated by TIGTA in Washington, he said. Meanwhile, CitiBank has agreed to return Huston’s deposit funds.

“I want people to know about this,” Huston said. “If I can have some effect on this kind of thing happening to an elderly person . . . . I mean, it was horrible. It was a horrible experience.

“The first guy who called was very aggressive,” she said, “saying there was an officer on the way to my house to take me to jail, and they would seize my property and my car and all the money in my account, and because I hadn’t responded to the certified letters it was an indication that I was defrauding the government . . . .

“I was so frightened,” she said. “I had crossed some threshold of fear, and could no longer . . . reason.”

“She was lucky,” says Walters. “Usually when you start calling for help you get voicemails and automated responses and that whole leave-a-message thing, but investigators [at TIGTA, PNC CitiBank] got involved right away and were ready and willing to help.”

Roger Piantadosi
About Roger Piantadosi 539 Articles

Former Rappahannock News editor Roger Piantadosi is a writer and works on web and video projects for Rappahannock Media and his own Synergist Media company. Before joining the News in 2009, he was a staff writer, editor and web developer at The Washington Post for almost 30 years.