Federal authorities have charged a man they say impersonated an IRS representative and duped victims into buying Target gift cards to pay off phony tax debts, a scenario that has long inspired warnings to the public from law enforcement agencies near and far.
Target later found that the suspect traveled to at least 10 stores per day in the Twin Cities to redeem about $224,000 in gift cards from May 31 until his arrest at a Target in the north metro, according to the criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in St. Paul.
Yu Zhang, 27, is charged with wire fraud and remained in the Sherburne County jail Thursday in federal custody. Zhang’s attorney declined to comment about the allegations.
In illustrating Zhang’s tactics, the complaint detailed how he tricked a woman in Ankeny, Iowa, three weeks ago into buying three $2,000 Target gift cards and turning them over to him.
The woman received an automated “robo” telephone call purportedly from the IRS and was directed to call a specific number. She spoke with a man who said he worked for the IRS’ tax-collecting arm.
He told the woman she owed $4,058 for the 2013 tax year and would be arrested if she didn’t pay up.
She followed the man’s orders and went to a Target in Ankeny, bought two $2,000 gift cards with cash and provided him with the card numbers and activation codes. Before the woman left the Target parking lot, the charging document continued, the fake IRS agent told her she needed to buy another $2,000 gift card in order to remove an “arrest warrant.” She complied.
Zhang is shown on surveillance video in a Target on University Avenue in St. Paul barely 30 minutes later drawing from the third gift card to buy $2,000 in prepaid gift cards issued by Google Play and Steam, which sell online gaming products. Google Play also offers media and other items.
Actual card not needed at checkout
Anyone with the card number and activation code can use its value without having the physical card. They can redeem it with a smartphone through the Target app or a similar app, or give the numbers to a cashier in a Target store without presenting the actual card.
Target spokeswoman Jenna Reck said the Minneapolis-based national retailer trains its store staffers how to spot patrons falling victim to such scams, but “unfortunately, this type of scam has targeted a number of different retailers and Target as well.”
Reck said she knows of Target cashiers and other employees “who have stopped frauds as they are happening” in several instances.
In one instance in early 2017 at a Target near Richmond, Va., two employees were suspicious about a couple wanting to buy two $2,000 gift cards at the direction of some posing as a police officer who called to say the purchases were needed to get their grandson out of jail. The employees warned the couple in time that they were being scammed.
Target investigators determined that Zhang pulled off more than 100 similar transactions over a nine-day stretch, visiting 10 to 15 stores daily, according to the complaint. Target also revealed that Zhang ran the same scheme at Targets in Illinois in March.
Surveillance video in Minnesota allowed store investigators to capture the license plate number of a vehicle associated with Zhang. Law enforcement determined the vehicle was a rental from the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. The rental company handed over the identity of Zhang, who has a driver’s license in California.
On June 8, Zhang redeemed a gift card at a Target in Blaine and later that day was arrested at a Target in Andover, the complaint read. He was carrying several hundred third-party gift cards worth tens of thousands of dollars.
How to avoid being duped
Law enforcement agencies for years have warned citizens about just the kind of scam that Zhang is accused of carrying out.
“No legitimate government or law enforcement agency is going to contact people and ask that they wire money to someone or buy prepaid money cards,” said Plymouth Police Sgt. Heath Bird. “If residents have questions regarding the legitimacy of a call they receive, they should hang up, go online to find the agency’s number and call them back.”
Police and other public agencies offer these tips to prevent falling prey:
• Never reply to an unsolicited request for personal or financial information or give out information over the phone without verifying the facts.
• If a call sounds questionable, hang up and call the agency.
• Never click on links or open attachments in unsolicited e-mails. To report a scam e-mail claiming to be from the IRS or an affiliate, write to email@example.com.
• Maintain up-to-date antivirus software.
Target also offers advice to shoppers on its website.
Reck, the Target spokeswoman, said there are ways that scam victims can recover their losses, including “if they call us right away and provide the gift card information. We can trace the card and deactivate it as long as there are funds left on the card.”
Otherwise, she added, law enforcement might be able to recover the funds. Short of that, Reck said, “we will see what we can do, [but] it depends on the situation.”