Patricia Nickelson was in Alabama when she got the message that she was about to be arrested.
The Joplin truck driver was running a haul solo — her husband, Tim, was out on recovery from surgery. She had just filled up with gas and saw that she had missed a voice mail saying that she should call the IRS immediately about missed payments.
She called the number back, where a woman repeated her name and address back to her. Nickelson owed about $3,800 in back taxes, the woman said, and if she didn't pay, law enforcement would take her into custody soon. Already on edge from being on the road, Nickelson began to panic.
But then Nickelson remembered a key detail: She had already worked with the IRS on that tax year over a $500 discrepancy.
"Looking back, it seems silly," Nickelson said. "She kept saying that the FBI was coming after me, but the IRS doesn't need the FBI. They found me last time with just a letter."
According to the Better Business Bureau, this common scam didn't even rank in the top 5 for 2018.
The nonprofit consumer agency released its list of the most commonly reported and riskiest scams last week. It filed the reports into 31 categories and used the number of reports, median losses and percentages of exposure and susceptibility to assign each category a risk index.
Of 50,559 reports taken:
• Employment scams ranked as the riskiest, with a high chance of losing money — a median of $1,204. The Better Business Bureau took 4,605 reports dealing with this subject.
• Online purchase scams ranked as the second-most risky. The largest number of reports, 10,450, carried a median loss of only $75, but a high susceptibility rating of 75.2 percent.
• Ranking third were fake check scams, with a median loss of $1,500 and 2,037 reports filed.
• Home improvement scams came in at No. 4, with a median loss of $1,745 and a susceptibility percentage of 52.8 percent.
• Advance-fee loan scams round out the top 5, with 1,537 reporters claiming a median loss of $675.
The list somewhat matches the list of the top 10 consumer complaints filed with the Missouri attorney general's office. According to a news release, retail and wholesale purchases were also No. 2; the top complaint was violations of Missouri's no-call list.
The rise of employment scams is a sign of the times, said Stephanie Garland, a regional director for the bureau. The promise of a good job or home-based business can be attractive to many different types of people looking for additional income, and from relocation of major companies to hiring challenges getting news coverage, working is at the front of people's minds.
"In 2017, employment wasn't even mentioned in the top 15," Garland said. "That's a huge increase right there. It shows scammers are paying attention to the news. They can take an old scam and put a twist on it."
Nickelson didn't send any money to the scammer. As the conversation went on, the woman on the other end of the phone got increasingly confrontational and abrasive, she said. Like her previous issue, Nickelson offered to go to the Joplin branch of the IRS, but that was no good for the scammer. Case numbers given to both her and her husband, when he called back separately, didn't match. Neither did phone numbers.
After the ordeal was over, the first thing Nickelson did was to file the report on the Better Business Bureau's Scam Tracker. She said she feels fortunate that she didn't lose any money but is still bothered by how scammers got her phone number.
"It was the fact that we had that previous discrepancy on our taxes that I have to credit," Nickelson said. "They get you in a fight or flight thing, where you think you're fighting for something important. I wonder, had they asked for a lesser amount, if I would have given it."
Scams work because scammers prey upon people's interests or needs, Garland said. The trusting nature of people in the Midwest also leads to people falling victim to scams. According to reports submitted to the bureau's tracker, some people lost hundreds or thousands of dollars to scammers.
Tanya Lewis, of Joplin, is out $400 because she was seeking to buy a bichon frise puppy. The breed is easier for people with pet allergies, Lewis said — instead of starting a breeding business, Lewis wanted to raise a few for friends and family.
She paid the deposit with the now defunct website bichonheavens.com. Lewis said the website didn't appear to be fake — all the URLs led back to the same domain properly, and she couldn't find any negative reviews about them.
But when the shipping company started changing terms of the deal, she suspected she'd been taken.
"When I got an email telling me to check my email, that's when I started getting worried," Lewis said. "They didn't honor the deal I had made with the site, and told me to wire money for insurance, or criminal charges would be brought against me."
Lewis said she resisted paying the almost $2,000 extra they asked for. When the shipping company said to send money that would be refunded upon delivery of the puppy, that cemented her certainty. She filed reports with the bureau, attorney general and anyone else she could think of, she said.
She was unable to recover the deposit, she said.
Garland said the Better Business Bureau is a nonprofit that has no legal authority to prosecute or reclaim assets. The tracker helps people learn how scammers are operating, and information from the tracker is shared with law enforcement agencies.
"We have quarterly meetings with the FBI, FCC, FTC and Missouri attorney general," Garland said. "We work with police departments and sheriffs so that they can know what we're seeing in this area, and we try to work with those who can make legislative changes."
Garland said that the bureau offers advice and more at its site to help people keep from falling for such scams. She also recommended checking web pages for secure sites — with "https://" at the front — and Google image searches to verify authenticity of merchandise.
"They can go to bbb.org, type in the company's name and see if it is accredited," Garland said. "If they don't, they can call. We have investigators who work hard to see if companies are legitimate."