Getting a call or email from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) can be stressful, especially if the message claims that you owe money. Scammers take advantage of this emotional situation and use it to swindle taxpayers out of their hard-earned money. In fact, the IRS estimates that “thousands of people have lost millions of dollars and personal information to tax scams.” These criminals vary their techniques to contact potential victims, using telephone calls, email, mail, text messages, or even social media to contact taxpayers.
Scammers may also target specific groups of people, like senior citizens, limited English speakers, tax professionals, and HR/payroll professionals. That’s why it’s important to know how, why, and when the IRS may contact a taxpayer. Here are some things to keep in mind if you think you’ve been contacted by the IRS:
- The IRS never initiates contact with taxpayers by email, text message, or social media to request your personal information.
- The IRS will never demand immediate payment over the phone or request you to pay by gift card, prepaid debit card, or wire transfer. They also will not ask for your debit or credit card number over the phone.
- The IRS will never call or email you to verify your identity by asking for personal or financial information.
You should also be aware of some of the common scams that criminals run in the name of the IRS so you can recognize the signs. Below, we’ll go over some common IRS scams to watch out for, as well as what to do if you encounter a scammer.
Tax scam calls
Perhaps the most common IRS scams are phone calls. These scams are considered vishing, the voice version of phishing attacks. Often, scammers use robocalls, or a prerecorded message. Many use spoofing to make the phone call look like it’s really coming from the IRS or the Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS). Some scammers may use fake badge numbers and IRS titles, or become aggressive or even insulting. If you experience the following tactics, assume that it is a scam phone call:
- An unexpected phone call about a tax refund
- A demand for immediate payment using a gift card, prepaid debit card, or wire transfer without the opportunity to appeal the amount owed
- A threat to involve law enforcement, to deport, or to revoke a taxpayer’s license or social security number
You can see that these tactics involve urgency, pressure, and inducing fear. Know that the IRS will mail you a paper bill if you owe any money, and you can always appeal or question the amount owed. Do not ever give your social security number or bank account information over the phone, and do not make a payment using a wire transfer, debit or credit card, or gift card.
So when does the IRS call taxpayers?
It depends on the situation. You may receive legitimate calls from an IRS agent. According to their website, IRS agents may call you to confirm an appointment after first mailing a notice or to discuss a scheduled audit. If you do receive a call from an IRS agent, you can ask for verification. IRS agents will confirm their identity with a pocket commission and a Personal Identity Verification (PIV) Credential.
What to do if you’ve received a scam phone call
If you are suspicious of a caller, visit IRS.gov to see how much money you actually owe and to verify payment options. You can also hang up and call the IRS back to ensure you are speaking to a real IRS agent. Be sure not to redial the number that just called you — instead, look up contact information on the IRS website.
If you receive a phone call from a scammer, the IRS recommends blocking these calls. You should also report the incident to the appropriate authorities.
Email tax scams
Phishing is one of the most popular tactics scammers use today to trick people. A phishing email can look very convincing since criminals usually scrape official graphics and text from the businesses and organizations they are trying to impersonate. Scammers may also attempt to contact you via text message, which is known as a smishing attempt. It’s important to keep in mind that the IRS never initiates contact with taxpayers via email, text message, or social media. If anyone claiming to be the IRS contacts you via these methods, consider it fraudulent.
These false emails contain links for websites that look like IRS.gov and may claim to contain details about tax refunds, electronic returns, or accounts. Their goal is to infect your computer with malware by sending a “temporary password” that links to a malicious file. Ransomware, a form of malware, makes the IRS’s Dirty Dozen of scams to watch out for.
What to do if you’ve received a scam email
If you receive a suspicious email, never click on any links within it or download images or attached files. Do not send any personal financial information or your social security number over email. If you receive a scam email to your personal email, forward it to email@example.com and then delete it. If you open that email on your work computer, the IRS recommends notifying your company’s cybersecurity professionals.
Tax scams can happen year-round, so be sure to keep an eye out for odd calls, emails, text messages, and social media messages, even after tax season is over. For more information about tax scams, be sure to visit check out the 2020 Dirty Dozen list tax scams to watch out for and the IRS’s Tax Scams/Consumer Alerts page for the most up-to-date information.