Paris Ali-Pilling reports on his experience of narrowly avoiding a scam HMRC call demanding the immediate payment of £1000.
It was an average Saturday morning. I’d run a bath and was putting on some music when the call came. Normally I don’t answer numbers I don’t recognise, but I was choosing music on my phone and accidently accepted the call.
‘This is an automated call from HM Revenue and Customs, please select option 1 to be put through to your case handler’.
Case handler? I wondered. I’ve recently started freelancing and assumed it must be something to do with becoming self-employed. I pressed 1.
‘Hello, am I speaking to Mr Paris Pilling?’
‘Good, my name is Rachel Wood and I will be handling your case for HMRC’.
‘What case?’ I asked.
‘Mr Pilling it is very important that you listen to everything I am about to say to you without interrupting me OK?’
‘Of course’, I answered, slightly confused. What case was she talking about? I had not received a letter about a case against me.
I put the phone on loudspeaker and walked into the living room. It looked like I wouldn’t be enjoying that relaxing bath anytime soon.
Rachel told me HMRC had built a case against me as they had evidence suggesting that I had tried to defraud the government.
I started to panic. A few months before, I’d quit my job in education to pursue a career in editing. I was still finding out about the transition to self-employment. Had I done something wrong?
Rachel advised that I had not been paying the right amount of tax and that I owed the government £1500. She advised my employer had paid £500 of the debt but it was down to me to pay the remainder and HMRC wanted me to pay it right now.
‘What do you mean I haven’t been paying my tax correctly? My tax gets taken out of my pay slip, I have nothing to do with how much gets taken, you guys deal with that, when is this from?’ I asked.
‘Mr Pilling, between 2015 and 2018 were you working?’ Rachel asked.
‘Yes, but only part time as I was at university.’
‘We have it on good authority that between these dates you were knowingly paying the incorrect tax and that you owe £1500. Your employer paid £500 of that and advised that the rest needed to come from you. You have 2 options. But before I get into what the options are you need to take down the information I am about to tell you, I am going to phone you back right now as it seems the line is bad, when I phone back you must pick up, OK?’
I agreed and the line went dead. I was suddenly very stressed. I had no idea what Rachel Wood was talking about. My husband, hearing my agitation, entered the room.
My phone rang again.
‘Am I speaking to Mr Pilling?’
‘My name is Rachel Wood, my badge number 89560AS, your case number is 892241767. Have you written down the information?’
‘I have’ I replied.
‘Mr Pilling, the options available to you right now are: option 1, you pay the full outstanding £1000 now and this case is closed; option 2 is that you do not pay and I send over a warrant to your local police station and they will be at your house to arrest you within 45 minutes of the warrant being received. You could possibly be sent to jail and will also have to pay our legal fees if you lose the case. The warrant ID is 248/1965. How would you like to proceed?’
I began to panic. ‘Well I don’t want to go to jail so I’ll take option 1.’
‘Good. That will mean paying the full amount of £1000 by direct debit.’
‘I don’t have £1000!’
‘How much do you have?’
My husband heard the question and mouthed to me, ‘£275’. I relayed the news to Rachel.
She wasn’t pleased. ‘That’s not enough, it would have to be at least £500 for a warrant not to be sent out.’
I needed to get some help. Quickly.
‘OK,’ I said, ‘Let me phone my mum and see if I can borrow the money from her.’
Instead of being pleased at my efforts to settle the debt, this only seemed to enrage Rachel further.
‘You are not to leave this phone call, Mr Pilling. You need to pay now or I will have you placed down for option 2’.
But Rachel wasn’t the only one whose temper was fraying. ‘I understand that, Miss Wood, which is why my husband is phoning my mum right now.’
‘You cannot speak to her Mr Pilling, you need to stay on the line with me’.
‘Yes Rachel,’ I snapped, ‘I understand that but if you want at least £500 you’re going to have to wait on the line while I try to sort it out’.
‘Mr Pilling, there is no need to take that tone,’ she barked back.
My husband couldn’t get through to my mum, after trying several times. I covered the microphone and told my husband to phone my best friend’s mum, who had recently retired after a lifetime of working in finance. He got through and explained what was happening to me.
‘This sounds like fraud,’ she told my husband, ‘HMRC don’t just phone you up demanding money, especially on a Saturday morning. Also, the police are certainly not going to come out and arrest you over this, they have better things to be doing.’
Meanwhile, Rachel was telling me she was bored of waiting and wasn’t going to lose her job over me. She was putting me down for option 2.
‘But I haven’t agreed to option 2!’ I protested, ‘and I don’t agree to it. You have already advised that this call is going to be used in court and they will hear I have not agreed to option 2. You need to give me time to get you the money.’
‘Mr Pilling,’ she said, ‘it’s not about the money anymore. If you can’t pay right now I’m sending off the warrant. You can put the phone down now and wait for the police’.
Over-hearing the call, my friend’s mum told me to put the phone down.
‘Don’t worry,’ she said over speakerphone, ‘HMRC never phone out of the blue or ask for payment like this, but if you are worried, give HMRC a call. Ask to speak to Rachel Wood, as you have all of her details written down.’
So I hung up and did exactly that.
A man from the fraud department at HMRC told me there had been numerous reports about scam phone calls pretending to be them.
‘Please don’t tell me you gave them any of your details,’ he said.
‘You mean like bank details? No definitely not.’
‘I’m glad to hear it, that’s how they take your money. We normally send out letters to people, and we certainly don’t send people to jail for messing up their taxes.’
I put the phone down and went to add some hot water to the bath. But even though I knew it was a scam, for the rest of the day part of me was waiting for a knock at the door in case the police came to arrest me for a tax fraud I hadn’t committed.
Find out more
HM Revenue & Customs received more than 60,000 reports of scam calls in the six months leading up to January 2019 – an increase of 360% compared to the previous six months. Find out more in this article from Money Saving Expert
Read the HMRC guidance on phishing emails and bogus contact.
Find out about malicious number spoofing, when scammers use a false number to make you think they’re from your bank, in this article from Which?