In the last few weeks, I’ve taken several sheepish calls from folks indicating that they received a call from a government agent and proceeded to participate in a long chat. They knew they shouldn’t do it, but guilt or fear, particularly the concern that declining to talk would anger the agent, overcame their judgment. So, this is the first of a few articles that will focus on dealing with contact from government agents.
I want to emphasize that when you get a phone call from someone who claims to be with the government, you shouldn’t believe them. While the odds are high that they are telling the truth, the risk that they are lying is still very real. I have seen at least five situations in which people have falsely claimed to be government agents.
Sometimes they are reporters or lawyers or wannabe whistleblowers attempting to gather information about an organization; other times they’re running a scam. Last year I talked about a situation in which two “agents” claimed to have found a doctor’s prescription pad in a car in Texas. They accused the doctor of conspiring with other members of his clinic to run an opioid ring. They cautioned him against talking with anyone else because that would be obstruction of justice.
That “warning” was a misrepresentation of the law in a way that allowed the scammers to isolate their target. They told him his license was summarily suspended. They had spoofed a phone number from the FBI and sent a document purporting to be from a state medical board. It was an impressive forgery. The document looked authentic.
You need to make sure that everyone in your organization knows to question the authenticity of phone calls, and even of documents. Historically, phone calls from government agents were incredibly rare. In the past, I would have said “If it is a call, it is probably fake.” That is no longer true, and the change heightens the risk that telephonic schemes will become more common.
It isn’t always easy to verify the identity of a caller. I recently attempted to validate the authenticity of a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) agent. While I know a number of agents throughout the country, I have never encountered this particular Virginia-based agent. I rapidly discovered that there is almost no easy way to confirm that the person is authentic without reaching out to another OIG agent and asking them to verify the person’s identity.
When the call is from a purported government agent, I hope you will have your legal counsel do the validation and return the call. But there may be times when you are trying to confirm someone’s identity. In that case, don’t use the phone number the person provided you.
Let’s call this the Vandelay Industries problem. Regular Seinfeld viewers will remember that George once asked Jerry to answer his phone “Vandelay Industries,” because George needed to provide a fake reference and gave out Jerry’s number as the contact for a former employer.
The Internet makes it easier for you to search for a phone for any organization. Whether they are claiming to be a reporter, a government official, or someone providing a job reference for a future employee, use the Internet to find a phone number for their organization, and then call that number and ask for the person, rather than using the number provided.
I have personal experience with this.
Many years ago, when hiring a nanny, I realized that our applicant was using a friend to pose as a former employer.
In future articles, I will address other tips for interacting with government agents, but the message here is a simple one: don’t trust a phone call. When someone calls and says they’re from the government, get their name and phone number, and then turn it over to legal.
Let legal make sure the person is who they claim to be. But it wouldn’t hurt to remind legal that you don’t know the person is who they claim to be.