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FTC: Watch out for government impostors

Consumers should beware of scams involving crooks posing as government officials, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission said this week.

The scams typically involve a phone call using a faked caller ID. That means your phone might show the call coming from a Washington, D.C., number and even display a government agency's name, such as the Internal Revenue Service or FTC. But that doesn't mean it's really someone from the government calling.

With phoney calls that appear to be coming from the IRS, the caller tries to convince you that you owe the government money, the FTC said. Fraudsters also typically pressure people to pay up quickly by immediately putting money on a prepaid debit card. No government agency would make such a request, the FTC said.

Most communications regarding a tax issue with the IRS will be by traditional mail, the agency said.

With bogus calls seemingly from the FTC, a scammer will try to convince you that you have won a sweepstakes or other contest the agency is overseeing. Targets are then told that they must pay a fee, tax or other charge to collect their winnings. "But it's just phony baloney," the FTC said in its warning.

The agency warns that making a payment through a prepaid card or money transfer is equivalent to giving someone cash. That's why they're the preferred method of payment in scams. Once you send the money, it's gone.

The FTC also notes that technology makes it relatively simple for crooks to "spoof" caller ID and otherwise misrepresent a phone call's origins. If you're going to call back who you believe is someone who called from the government, look up the actual number for the agency, the FTC recommended, so you know you're talking to the real deal. Don't rely on the number that was left as a message or appears on the caller ID.

If you get a scam call from a government impostor, you can file a complaint with the FTC. If it's an IRS scam, you can also contact the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration.

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