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I helped scam people who owed taxes. It was the most dishonest time of my life.

Vox.com logo Vox.com 4/19/2017 Michael Estrin
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Related video: Avoid tax scams (provided by CNBC)

I was desperate for a job.

Craigslist is where you find used sofas, not lawyers. But I’m desperate, so I send my résumé. Five minutes later, Nick calls to set up an interview. I put on my only suit and drive to the Hollywood office of a tax debt resolution firm. I park in the adjacent lot, hoping they validate.

There’s nowhere to sit in Nick’s office, so I stand. Nick is white-haired, with sleepy eyes and a Southern drawl. He occupies a worn green leather love seat, a newspaper spread across his lap. (Like others in this story, I’ve changed Nick’s name for legal reasons.)

“That’s Stephen J. Cannell’s place,” Nick says, pointing out his window. “You know, the fella who created The A-Team.

“And 21 Jump Street,” I quickly add.

I’m eager to impress — the ad said compensation was $50,000 a year. But I’m also worried I’m betraying my real ambition. I graduated law school, passed the bar, and immediately began pursuing a writing career. I freelanced, but never strung together enough money to cover rent and my student loans in the same month. I banged out screenplays, got an agent, lost the agent, and optioned a script with a “potential” six-figure payday.

After two years of grinding, I’m still broke, still living with my parents, and am so embarrassed about my lack of progress that I’ve withdrawn from friends and quit dating. At 26, I’m certain I’ve failed. All I have is a fallback plan: law. But after sending hundreds of résumés, Nick is the first nibble.

Nick talks business, specifically fees. His company bills between $2,500 and $10,000. Nick doesn’t explain how people mired in tax debt come up with that much money; I don’t ask.

All of the company’s clients owe back taxes, usually federal and state. If the client is “current” — meaning they’ve filed tax returns but just haven’t paid — there are two options. There’s the payment plan, which means paying in full, including penalties and interest. The IRS always accepts a payment plan, as long as the monthly payment is above whatever threshold the regulations call for.

But clients don’t want payment plans. They hire someone from Nick’s company to “settle tax debt for pennies on the dollar” through a program the IRS calls “offer in compromise.”

Nick’s competitors advertise on television and radio, but Nick prefers to buy marketing lists of people in financial trouble and pay a salesperson named Jimmy to make cold calls all day long. If the person on the line seems remotely interested, Jimmy passes them on to a lawyer.

For now, Nick says, “The name of the game is volume.” And as the interview draws to a close, he shares his secret to working with “the folks” at the IRS.

“If you catch a real prick, hang up, try back later.” Chances are I’ll get another rep on the phone who might be more agreeable.

That makes sense, I say, but I don’t believe the words coming from my mouth. Nick pushes himself halfway out of the love seat and extends his arm. Beneath the newspaper, his pants are unbuttoned.

“Is this what you want to do?” my father asks when I get home. “Give up writing, practice law?”

It’s not what I want to do, but the stout starting salary is just enough to pay student loans and get an apartment with a roommate. With whatever is left over, maybe I can afford a little self-respect.

I start Monday.

I share an office with Lee, another lawyer with zero tax experience. We each have about 100 cases.

Technically, we don’t have to be lawyers. Accountants and enrolled agents (licensed tax professionals who are authorized to prepare tax returns and represent clients before the IRS) can also do this job. But “clients pay for the cachet of a lawyer,” Nick explains.

Jimmy, our outbound salesman, occupies the office across the hall. All day, Lee and I hear him making cold calls, always promising the same thing: “Our lawyers are settling tax debt just like yours for pennies as we speak,” Jimmy says without conviction.

Technically, Jimmy is correct, but his script omits key facts. First, an offer in compromise is a long shot, which is why Nick calls his business a numbers game. (A recent Forbes article puts the acceptance rate for an offer in compromise at 25 percent during the time I worked for Nick; today it’s about 40 percent.)

Second, taxpayers can prepare their own offers — the IRS even provides information explaining precisely how.

Third, successful offers hinge on the taxpayer’s ability to pay, based on assets and income. That’s the catch. People who can afford to pay us likely won’t meet the IRS threshold for debt forgiveness.

“Be creative with expenses,” Nick advises us.

When I point out the IRS has guidelines for expenses, Nick looks amused. He tells us to “work the system.” Always start with an offer in compromise, and then fall back to a payment plan.

Mostly, Lee and I are on our own. Nick is usually golfing, or day drinking with his Russian bride, a woman named Tatiana who is fond of leopard-print pants and four-inch heels. When Tatiana is in the office, Nick’s door is always closed, and Annie, the office manager, insists that they’re not to be disturbed. One day, Annie lets slip that Tatiana draws a salary for no reason whatsoever. Unsupervised and largely untrained, Lee and I move papers, but contrary to what Jimmy promises, we cannot “move mountains.”

Approaching my two-month anniversary at the job, I’m confident because I’ve kept up with the volume. I have about 60 offers under consideration and a steady supply of work, thanks to an aggressive sales operation.

Jimmy passes leads to Violet and Elon, who actually sign up clients, collect the necessary financial details, and handle whatever client contact is required. They operate on the ABCs of sales — always be closing. Elon uses fear:Don’t let the IRS garnish your wages.

Violet practices empathy. She listens to the tales of heartbreak that led to insurmountable tax debt, and when her prospects have bared their souls, she dangles a solution. Lee and I will “fight like hell” for them, she promises, just as soon as they get their credit card.

“You’re doing great work for these folks,” Violet says to me. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Unfortunately, that’s a lie, one I’ve chosen to ignore out of expedience. If pushing dubious paperwork through the IRS is how I’ll get my life back on track, so be it.

Then one day, Annie discovers weeks of unopened mail stashed away by a receptionist who went to lunch and never returned. Annie arranges the mail in knee-high piles on the floor in the office I share with Lee. The IRS has rejected every single offer. It’s obvious our efforts made no difference for our clients. Actually, that’s not true. Our efforts cost our clients thousands of dollars, money most don’t have. But Lee has a plan for our clients: the payment plan.

“Time to start dialing for dollars,” he says.

We each grab a stack of files and phone the IRS.

That night, I tell my father about the mail.

“Oy, what a mess,” he says.

“Dad, I think it’s a scam.”

As I explain, Dad’s face sours. He always told me to find something I love doing so I’ll never work a day in my life. This summed up Dad’s career as a sound engineer, a job he fell in love with as a teenager. And to hear him tell stories of his father, a Russian immigrant who worked his way up from box boy to grocery store owner, our family blood runs thick with vocational pride. I knew that following my writing dream made my father proud, but somewhere along the way I convinced myself he couldn’t be proud of a son who still needed his support.

“What will you do?”

“I don’t have a choice. I need the money.”

Dad looks incredulous. This is the first time in two years that money has come up. All Dad asked was that I work hard to pursue my dream. He encouraged me, emailed links to everyone he knew whenever I landed a byline, and trusted me to struggle. I don’t need the money, I realize, I want it. A steady paycheck means an apartment, dating, and a life. Money means self-respect.

“All I ask is you be proud of what you do,” Dad says.

I am a lot of things at this moment, but proud is not one of them. I’ve confused success with purpose, and the lie that holds it together is this: My worth is determined by material achievement. The truth, I realize as he advises me, is that self-respect isn’t about money at all. Either I’ll make it as a writer or I’ll find something else and then find a way to love doing that.

What I can’t do is continue lying, so I quit.

“Too bad,” Nick says. “I was hoping this would work.”

“Me too,” I say, and I almost believe it.

A few years later, my editor at Bankrate, a personal finance website I write for, assigns a story about settling tax debt for pennies on the dollar. The headline ends up being “Tax scam’s deal really is too good to be true.” The key takeaway is this: “Steer clear of providers that only (or mostly) do offer-in-compromise work.” In other words: Avoid the kind of firm I worked for.

I’d hoped the article might be penance for the three most dishonest months of my life. When I quit, I felt superior to Lee, who rationalized the deception. Our clients were trying to game the system, he reasoned. If we didn’t do it, some other firm would.

Maybe that was true. But it’s also true that quitting didn’t make me any better than my clients or my co-workers. I was just better off for having a father who was proud of me, even when I wasn’t proud of myself.

Michael Estrin is a writer living in Los Angeles. You can read more stories, as well as some slice-of-life humor, at his blog, Situation Normal. He’s currently working on a book about the world’s greatest sound man. You can friend him on Facebook.

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