MUSCATINE — Sunday morning, Lois and Kenneth Irwin returned home from their Bible study group to a message someone left on their phone.”
"It was the IRS, and they said we needed to get back to them immediately,” Lois Irwin recounted. "We needed to get back to them with our social security numbers because there were charges against us."
Irwin said she has never been under investigation by the Internal Revenue Service. She said she files her taxes on time each year.
“My thought was, ‘What the heck?’” Irwin said. “I need to find out more about this.”
So Irwin called the “IRS.” The area code was for Dallas, Texas. And after waiting for some time, Irwin gave them her name and they said they needed her social security number to look up what charges were filed against her.
“I said, ‘No. No. No.’ We don’t give out our social security number to anyone,” Irwin recounted. “But I want you to tell me what this call was about.”
She said that the person offered her a circular: We don’t know what the call is about until we have your social security number. She said that for flavor, they added that regardless, she was in “big trouble.”
“I just hung up on him,” Irwin said with all the finality of slamming a receiver. She knew from the beginning it was a spammer.
“These people will just go through all kinds of measures to get through,” Irwin said.
A report in The American Journal of Public Health reviewed 12 studies involving nearly 42,000 community-dwelling older adults and determined that in a five year period, an estimated 5.6 percent of older adults are a target for financial fraud, and 5.4 are targeted within one year.
On the surface, the Irwins seem like the archetypal mark: Lois will be 79 in May; Kenneth will 80 in August. They are two retirees who talk proudly of their travels which have included all 50 U.S. states.
According to the Irwins, the thing that sets them apart was just how frequently these calls happen. There is the call from “a jail in Omaha,” where their grandson was being held. There was the hearing aid sales person.
"What can we say? We're an easy mark because we have a number in the phonebook,” Kenneth Irwin said.
“It just seems be happening more,” Lois Irwin said.
Kenneth Irwin said that they will regularly get five to six calls in a week. Lois said that can peak at three or four calls in one day.
“What’s more is we don’t know what to do about it,” Lois Irwin said. “These calls just keep coming in.”
In December 2017, a Federal Trade Commission report said in FY2017, the agency received 375,000 complaints per month about automated spam phone calls, up from 63,000 per month in 2009. The report explained that increasing access to internet calling services and autodialing is making it cheaper for spammers to operate.
Some phone companies have introduced scam blocking tools to help their customers screen phone calls, but not every service does so.
To block telemarketing calls, the Federal Communications Commission recommends registering your number on their Do Not Call list, which they say “protects both landline and wireless phone numbers.” Most instances spam phone calls are illegal whether or not the number is on the National Do Not Call list.
If you ask the Irwins, they will tell you that it takes being watchful over personal information.
“You should treat them (personal information) with a lot of close protection,” Lois Irwin said. “If it gets in the wrong hands, you are really into some major problems. Are you familiar with the caller? Should you trust them? Maybe you are too giving?”
The Irwins gave the Muscatine Journal the phone number that contacted them last Sunday. Though the Journal left multiple messages, the “IRS” could not be reached for comment by press time.