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Written by: Mike Yang

Are you at risk? Use our interactive tool to view the level of activity from fraudsters in your county. Either enter your zip or county name or simply click on the map. [iframe src=”/wp-content/themes/zap-installable/visualizations/irs-scam-counties/index.html?v=4″ width=”647″ height=”640″]
In our previous blog post, we recorded our interaction with the scammers by posing as the victim. We wanted to understand if the scammers are targeting individuals at random or are they targeting a particular demographic.  We used our Phone Reputation Service databases to determine the location associated with the complaints associated with this scam.

Which counties are most targeted?

We plot the number of complaints by county on a map of the US; the darker the color of the county, the higher the number of complaints. Right away, some locations jump out at us. Several counties in Florida look quite dark, as well as the NYC, DC and some other big cities. Our initial assumption was that the number of complaints would match up well with the population of a region. We do see that to some extent – NYC, LA, Miami and other big cities show up prominently. However, several smaller counties in Florida (Lee, Collier) and California (Marin, Merced) also stand out. What’s different about them? IRS Phone Scam: Map of attacks by county The call that we recorded with the scammer gives us a big hint. At one point the scammer specifically asks whether the intended victim was “born and brought up” in the US. They clearly indicated that the scammer preferred targeting people who were foreign-born. We were curious whether this was a pattern that explained the distribution of targeted counties.

Are foreign-born people disproportionately targeted?

The American Community Survey (ACS) collects extensive data about the place of birth of people in the US to estimate the foreign-born population in each.  As shown in the histogram, the general distribution of foreign-born people in US counties is very skewed. Most counties have a very small fraction of immigrants, in fact the median is about 2.5%, and only 5% of counties have a foreign-born population of 15% or more. Foreign born population in US counties The table below shows the top 25 most targeted counties in decreasing order of number of complaints, along with estimates for the overall and foreign-born population. Right away, we notice that the all of these counties have a very high proportion of foreign-born people: from 3X of the median (Baltimore, MD) to 20X (Miami-Dade, FL). Additionally, many high-population counties (NY, LA, DC, Harris) are prominent on this list.

County State #Complaints Total Pop Foreign-born Pop %Foreign-born
New York County NY 3087 1619090 455248 28.51
Los Angeles County CA 2094 9962789 3473930 35.30
Lee County FL 1908 645293 93889 15.04
District of Columbia DC 1598 632323 82048 13.54
Harris County TX 985 4253700 1026719 25.03
Marin County CA 817 256069 48375 19.14
Duval County FL 770 879602 80953 9.34
Collier County FL 754 332427 74640 23.07
Miami-Dade County FL 735 2591035 1286234 51.20
Cook County IL 662 5231351 1099425 21.15
Orange County FL 589 1202234 220213 19.09
Merced County CA 585 262305 64622 25.20
Orange County CA 584 3090132 922303 30.52
King County WA 568 2007440 394819 20.34
Broward County FL 539 1815137 552669 31.37
Baltimore city MD 527 621342 45956 7.40
Bexar County TX 527 1785704 223995 13.02
Sacramento County CA 431 1450121 281846 19.82
Monroe County FL 420 74809 13224 18.00
Washoe County NV 383 429908 63589 15.07
Alameda County CA 382 1554720 463896 30.62
San Diego County CA 365 3177063 720485 23.24
Santa Clara County CA 349 1837504 658753 36.83
Monroe County NY 342 747813 62139 8.34
Dallas County TX 341 2453843 545938 22.95

What is the relative impact of each of these two factors? In order to tease that out, we plot the total number of complaints on a bubble scatter plot, with the two factors, immigrant proportion and overall population as the axes. The size of the bubble indicates the number of complaints from the corresponding county. Number of phone fraud complaints in targeted US counties As shown in the chart, as the bubbles get larger, they are clearly closer to the Y axis (proportion of immigrants) than the X axis (overall population), implying that the presence of a high concentration of immigrants has a high correlation with the top counties targeted in this scam. This analysis clearly shows that the scammers are following a pattern of targeting immigrant-dense areas of the country. We started this investigation with our employee having a conversation with a single IRS scammer, and eventually demonstrated a consistent pattern of scammers targeting immigrants on a large scale. The main takeaway: if you live in an area with a large immigrant population, be careful when you get calls from unknown numbers.
Raj Bandyopadhyay, Peter Casanova, Philip Thrasher