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The IRS vs an Imposter: How to Tell the Difference

March 13, 20193 minute read

IRS Scams Background

Taxes are on everyone’s mind…and scammers know this. Because of the precision required with filing and the sensitive nature of the data involved, scammers can quickly take advantage of the stress surrounding filing day. Add in confusion surrounding the new tax law and how imposing the IRS appears and these scams can be lucrative, netting millions of dollars and fooling thousands of victims every year.

Scam phone calls and phishing attempts are on the rise since 2015, making the IRS’ “Dirty Dozen” scam list every year. It’s important to know the basics in order to protect yourself from scammers: how the real IRS will get in touch with you, common scam warning signs, and what to do if you think a scammer is contacting you.

Common Scam Warning Signs

One of the most common scams involves a scammer pretending to be an IRS representative over the phone. In the event of an issue with your tax filing, the IRS will initiate contact by mail as the first attempt to reach you. Some scammers use fake caller IDs with D.C. area codes to sound more plausible. Just because the caller ID says it’s the IRS, doesn’t make it true: caller IDs are easy to spoof.

Scammers typically threaten dramatic action if their instructions are not followed. This is a common way for scam artists to ignite fear as your first response and instill a sense of urgency to give into their demands with little questioning on your end. Scammers will often try to take advantage of confusion surrounding complicated laws - a recent one had scammers referencing a non-existent “federal student tax” - which netted millions.

Scammers may also have part of a social security number.

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 license, business license, immigration status, or to arrest you.
  • Ask for credit card payment over the phone.

What to do if you believe a scammer is contacting you:

  • Ask for identification: an IRS representative will have two forms of identification available to share: actual employees carry two official credentials: a pocket commission and an HSPD-12 card. You can call the IRS to verify it.
  • Report them using this form on the U.S. Treasury's website.
  • If the contact happens over email, forward the email to and delete it. Do not click on any links or attachments, which may contain malware.
  • If it’s an obvious scam, just hang up.
  • If a scammer knows part of your Social Security Number, you may want to file a report with the three major credit card bureaus to ensure your credit remains secure.

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.

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