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You asked — How do I know if this is a scam?

Q

: Someone called me and said they were the IRS and that I needed to pay them immediately or risk going to jail. Is that true?

A

: “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is” used to be the determining factor in deciding if something was a scam. But criminals have learned to play on technologically challenged older adults and use scare tactics on those they’re trying to swindle.

Attorney General Jim Hood warns consumers to be aware of unknown callers who create a sense of urgency or use high-pressure tactics.

“Be cautious of callers, web ads or mail that pushes you to act, unless you’ve initiated the contact or the communication is from a trusted, reliable source — and you can prove it,” Hood said.

That’s what happened to Carol Maxwell of Brookhaven.

She is embarrassed to admit that she has been scammed twice by the same people. But when they called her back recently pretending to be the IRS, she knew she needed to warn others by sharing her story.

In her 60s and not computer savvy, she believed the caller years ago when he said her firewall had been breached.

He told her that someone had access to her computer and could fill it with pornographic images. He offered to take care of the problem if she gave him access to her computer and $500.

“They said, ‘We’ve got to protect you. We’re the World Wide Web and we police them,’” she said.

She didn’t have $500 so they gave her a senior discount. She authorized $250 through her debit card.

“We were green as grass,” she said. “We thought these people were our saviors, trying to help us. When they call they try to pretend it’s an emergency. They tell you to hurry and be quick.”

About a month after that, he called her again.

“He said, ‘Turn on your computer, someone’s breached your firewall,’” she said.

They turned it on and were disgusted by the images that popped up.

“It was the worst, foulest thing that somebody can think of,” she said.

She didn’t realize at the time she was being scammed.

“Back then, we’d never heard of this kind of thing,” she said.

She was on to him when he called recently and said he was an IRS agent and that she owed money. He threatened her with prosecution if she didn’t pay immediately. They gave her a callback number and when she tried it, the caller answered, “The IRS.”

She didn’t fall for it.

The calls have slowed down, but she still gets a few each week. She even gets calls about breaches on the firewall of her computer, which she doesn’t own anymore.

“They’ll stop for about a month or two and then they’ll start back up. It’s like being tormented by these people,” she said.

If you have concerns about whether something is legitimate or a scam, or you suspect that you have become a victim of a scam, contact the Consumer Protection Division of the Attorney General’s office by visiting www.ago.state.ms.us or calling 601-359-4230, or 800-281-4418.

Several scams are making the rounds, officials said.

Commissioner of Insurance and State Fire Marshal Mike Chaney warned Mississippians recently of phone scams in which callers request donations for members of the fire service.

Chaney’s office has received numerous reports of phone solicitations for the Fallen Firefighters Association and the Mississippi Firefighters Association. The State Fire Academy has also received reports of someone contacting fire departments seeking donations for the Mississippi State Fire Academy.

“These organizations and the State Fire Academy do not raise funds in this manner — these calls are most often scams operating in our state,” Chaney said. “Do not give out any personal information via phone or email to anyone who calls you about a donation like this.”

Hood’s website offers information on some typical scams that are in operation around the country today. Many more are available at www.ago.state.ms.us.

Credit card scams

The scammer calls with your credit card number and asks for the security code on the back of the credit card. This gives the scammer the ability to order items from “secure” Internet sites until they’ve depleted your account.

Never give out the security code on the back of your credit card, unless you placed the call yourself, Hood said. Your credit card company will not call you and ask for this information because they already have it on file.

Check overpayment scams

These target consumers selling cars or other valuable items through classified ads or online auction sites.

Unsuspecting sellers get stuck when scammers pass off bogus cashier’s checks, corporate checks or personal checks to pay for the items.

Here’s how it happens: A scam artist replies to a classified ad or auction posting, offers to pay for the item with a check and then comes up with a reason for writing the check for more than the purchase price. The scammer asks the seller to wire back the difference after depositing the check.

The seller honors the request, and later, when the scammer’s check bounces, the seller is left liable for the entire amount.

Counterfeit check scams

You’ve won a lottery and the letter with the good news also includes a cashier’s check to pay the taxes and fees. The “winner” is asked to deposit the check and wire the money to the sender to pay the taxes and fees. You’re guaranteed that when they get your payment, you’ll get your prize.

There’s just one catch: This is a scam. The check, money order, or cashier’s check is no good, even though it appears to be legitimate. Once the fake check bounces, you’re left owing the money you’ve wired.

Computer support scams

Scam artists use the phone to try to break into your computer. They call, claiming to be computer technicians associated with well-known companies like Microsoft. They say that they’ve detected viruses or other malware on your computer to trick you into giving them remote access or paying for software you don’t need. They may even “walk you through” your computer, “checking for viruses.”

These scammers take advantage of your concerns about viruses and other threats. They know that computer users know it’s important to install security software. The purpose behind their scheme isn’t to protect your computer — it’s to take your money.

Debt collector scams

Under this scheme, scammers pose as debt collectors and attempt to collect for a payday loan or other loan, stating that you have defaulted. The scammers even may have your Social Security number, old bank account numbers, driver’s license numbers, home addresses, employer information and even the names of personal friends and professional references.

Hood said that the public should know that under the Federal Trade Commission’s Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, debt collectors may not harass, oppress or abuse any person while attempting to collect a debt. This includes threats of arrest or removal from your home.

Employment scams

These are generally too-good-to-be-true offers — work from home and earn thousands of dollars a month, no experience needed — and you end up with no job and out of money. It could be a secret shopper scheme, work-from-home scam or phony offer of employment.

It’s easy for scammers to create professional-looking email, websites and online “job applications.” Be concerned and cautious if the “employer” only wants to interview you over the phone, asks you to wire money for supplies or other up-front expenses, or to fill out an online form that asks for personal data like your social security number or bank account.