How to recognize tax scams and IRS imposters
It can seem like new scams are always popping up in a never-ending barrage of tricks and techniques used to steal money or information. It’s important to pay attention to whatever the most recent scam is, but it’s also important to keep in mind those that are regularly recycled and repeated. One of the more common forms of scams involves impersonating a government official or agency.
Historically, a prime target for impersonation has been the IRS. It makes sense. It’s an agency that asks for money and sparks anxiety. With sensitive data, new regulations, complicated directions, deadlines and threats of penalties, con artists may be able to take advantage of taxpayers’ stress by pretending to be an IRS agent and demanding confidential information. These scams can be lucrative, netting millions of dollars each year.
Tax scams are so common that the IRS publishes an annual list called the Dirty Dozen highlighting the most prevalent tax scams of the year.
Common scam warning signs
It’s important to know the basics in order to protect yourself from scammers.
Pretending to be an IRS representative over the phone is one of the most common strategies. Some scammers use fake caller IDs with D.C. area codes to appear more plausible. Caller IDs may even read “IRS,” but it’s easy to control the information the receiver sees.
Another common method is to threaten dramatic action if instructions are not followed. This group may try to take advantage of confusion surrounding complicated laws — some may even reference nonexistent, completely made-up laws. Their goal is to ignite fear and instill a sense of urgency to get you to react quickly to their demands. They don’t want you to take the time to think and question the logic of the communication.
When receiving any kind of correspondence that appears to be from the IRS, always take a moment to pause and reflect on the tone of the message, its purpose, and the manner in which it was delivered.
How the IRS communicates
In the event of an issue with your tax filing, the IRS will initiate contact by mail.
The IRS will not:
- Initiate contact via email
- Initiate contact via phone without sending you multiple bills first by mail
- Demand payment in the form of prepaid cards or gift cards
- Ask for personal information like your Social Security number over the phone
- Threaten your driver’s license, business license or immigration status
- Threaten to arrest you
- Ask for credit card payment over the phone
What to do if you suspect a scam
- Ask for identification: IRS revenue officers carry two official credentials: a pocket commission and an HSPD-12 card. Ask to see both.
- Report the incident to the U.S. Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration.
- Forward emails to email@example.com before deleting them. Do not click on any links or attachments as they may contain malware.
- Hang up if it’s an obvious phone scam.
- File a report with one of the three major credit card bureaus if the scammer knows part of your Social Security number to prevent identity theft.
Stay vigilant — tax scam season doesn’t end once the April filing deadline passes. Some types of scams increase as people anticipate their tax refund.