Your phone rings and it’s someone claiming to be from the Internal Revenue Service. Ominously, they say the police will be knocking on your door in minutes if you don’t pay your taxes right then and there.
Don’t fall for it. It’s not the IRS getting in touch with you.
Since 2018, more than 75,000 victims have lost $28 million to scammers impersonating the IRS over the phone, email, texts and more.
That’s according to data from the Federal Trade Commission, which enforces consumer protection laws, including those against fraud. The true number is almost certainly even higher, including reports to other agencies and victims who don’t make reports. And there are other types of tax scams altogether, like phony tax preparers and tax identity theft.
“Email and text scams are relentless, and scammers frequently use tax season as a way of tricking people,” IRS Commissioner Danny Werfel said in a news release last month.
As Tax Day approaches, here’s how the IRS actually contacts taxpayers and how you can spot imposters.
How the IRS will really contact you
“If the IRS contacts you, they’re never going to contact you first via email or telephone — they’re going to contact you in writing a letter,” says Christopher Brown, an attorney at the FTC.
A call or a visit usually only happens after several letters, the IRS says — so unless you’ve ignored a bunch of letters about your unpaid taxes, that caller claiming to be from the IRS is probably lying.
The IRS won’t threaten to have the police arrest you or demand that you make an immediate payment with a specific payment type, like a prepaid debit card. “That’s a sure sign that it’s a scam,” Brown says.
Taxpayers can always question or appeal what they owe, according to the IRS. Caller ID can be faked, so don’t think it’s real just because the caller ID says IRS, Brown says.
If you think a caller claiming to be from the IRS might be real, the IRS says you should ask them for their name, badge number and callback number, which you can verify with the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration by calling 1-800-366-4484. Then, you can either call the IRS back or report the scammer here.
What scams often look like
Aggressive and threatening scam phone calls impersonating the IRS have been a problem for years. Callers demand immediate payment, often via a specific payment method, and threaten arrest, driver’s license revocation and even deportation if you fail to pay up or provide sensitive personal information.
There isn’t data on the most common contact methods specifically for IRS imposter scams, but for government imposter scams overall, phone calls are the most common, Brown says.
These scams spread into emails and texts. Known as phishing and smishing scams, respectively, they were featured on this year’s “Dirty Dozen” list, an IRS campaign to raise awareness about tax scams.
“People should be incredibly wary about unexpected messages like this that can be a trap, especially during filing season,” Werfel, the IRS commissioner, said.
People get texts or emails that say “Your account has been put on hold” or “Unusual Activity Report” with a fake link to solve the problem. Clicking on links in scam emails or texts can lead to identity theft or ransomware getting installed on your phone or computer.
But scammers are always evolving. “Initially what we saw more was the threat with a demand that you make a payment, but then there was that new twist, which is, ‘Let’s not threaten, let’s sort of entice,’ ” Brown says.
That newer tactic of luring people with promises of a tax refund or rebate is more often employed over email or text as a phishing or smishing scam, Brown says. But both the threatening and enticing tactics are still prevalent, and they can be employed through any method of contact.
Consumers who are victims of imposter scams can report them to the IRS or to the FTC.
Regardless of the specifics, here’s a good rule of thumb from the FTC for spotting scams: “The government doesn’t call people out of the blue with threats or promises of money.” (NPR)