IRS scam calls: Fake vs. real IRS contact


It’s smart to stay vigilant throughout tax season and on Tax Day for IRS scam calls. Here’s a guide to common scams and tips how to protect against them.

Don’t be surprised if someone claiming to be from the IRS calls you on or around Tax Day. And don’t be surprised if the caller claiming to be an IRS agent is actually a con artist.

How common are scam calls in general? T-Mobile in December of 2021 released its first Scam and Robocall Report, showing that scam calls hit all-time highs during the year, increasing by more than 116 percent when compared with 2020. T-Mobile reported that con artists are making an average of 425 million scam calls — often in the form of robocalls — every week.

And scammers might be especially busy on and around Tax Day. Transaction Network Services Inc. reported that Tax Day 2018 saw more negative robocalls than any other day that year. Negative robocalls are those in which scammers try to trick victims into giving them cash, gift cards, or their personal financial information.

Transaction Network Services reported that nearly 143 million nuisance and high-risk robocalls were placed on 2018’s Tax Day, the most recent year in which the company reported on Tax Day activity specifically.

How do these Tax Day scams work? Criminals will call your phone number, or rely on robocalls to do so, and pose as representatives of the Internal Revenue Service to persuade you into providing your Social Security number, bank account numbers or other personal identification. Others might trick you into sending them money or gift cards to cover what they say are late fees or owed taxes.

The message, then, is clear: You must be vigilant throughout tax season and on Tax Day for scam calls. If you’re not, you could expose yourself to financial pain.

What’s a fake IRS call?

What happens during a fake IRS call? Scammers try to trick you into giving up personal information, paying to receive your tax refund faster or sending them dollars or gift cards to pay bogus late-filing penalties.

A recent warning issued by the IRS provides a good example. According to a warning released by the agency in June 2021, the IRS impersonation scheme remains far too common. In this scam, con artists call victims — often senior citizens or immigrants with limited English-language skills — and threaten them with jail time, deportation, or the suspension of their driver's licenses because they supposedly owe taxes. Many times, these victims don’t actually owe the IRS anything.

The scammers then demand that their victims send them money or gift cards or provide them with their personal financial information. If victims send money or gift cards, the scammers disappear, happy with their new haul. If they instead persuade victims into surrendering personal information such as their Social Security numbers, birthdates, addresses and bank account information, these criminals may try to break into their victims' online bank or credit card accounts or take out loans or apply for credit cards in their name.

In another common scam favored by con artists, criminals call taxpayers and fraudulently claim that they are calling from the IRS' Taxpayer Advocate Service.

The IRS does run such a service, one designed to protect the rights of taxpayers and to help them with any tax problems they cannot resolve. However, the real Taxpayer Advocate Service does not make unsolicited calls to taxpayers. Instead, taxpayers reach out to them.

The IRS says scammers have often spoofed the telephone number of the Taxpayer Advocate Service in Houston or Brooklyn. Spoofing is when scammers make it look like a call is coming from a certain number, even if it isn’t. By spoofing a legitimate number, criminals boost the odds that consumers will pick up a call and fall for a scam.

Often, the scammers will send a robocall, a recorded message asking consumers to call a certain number. Once consumers do this, the scammer on the other end tries to convince the intended victims to provide their Social Security number or other personal or financial information.

Scammers can then use this information to access consumer bank accounts, make fraudulent purchases with their credit cards, or even take out loans in their names.

This isn’t the only version of the fake IRS phone scam. Scammers might tell consumers that they are due a large tax refund, but that they can only get that refund after providing their bank account information for direct deposit. Other scammers might convince taxpayers that they need to pay a tax shortfall immediately with a wire  transfer.

The IRS has information about a variety of tax scams and identity theft on its website

Signs of fake IRS calls

Fake IRS calls are easy to spot if you know what to look for. Here are several ways to tell.

1. The “IRS” is calling you

You should be immediately suspicious if the phone rings and someone claiming to be an IRS agent is on the other end of the line. That’s because only in extremely rare situations does a representative of the IRS directly contact a taxpayer. According to the IRS, it usually contacts taxpayers through regular mail delivered by the U.S. Postal Service.

This doesn’t mean that every phone call claiming to be from the IRS is a scam. The service does call homes or businesses in special circumstances, such as when it is trying to collect an overdue tax bill or secure a delinquent tax return.

But these instances are rare. When someone claiming to work for the IRS calls you, the odds are good that it might be a scam.

2. The caller wants you to pay in gift cards

In December of 2021, the IRS sent a warning alerting taxpayers to the gift card payment scam. In this scam, con artists pretend that they are IRS agents calling, texting or emailing taxpayers about taxes that they supposedly owe. These criminals demand that their victims pay this debt -- which is usually fake -- by sending them gift cards.

Here's the important part: The IRS will never ask you to pay tax debt with gift cards. As the IRS says in its December, 2021, warning: "Gift cards make great presents for loved ones, but they cannot be used to pay taxes."

3. The caller wants you to pay right now

The IRS says it will not demand immediate payment from taxpayers and it will not demand that such payment be made in a specific way. Scammers, though, might demand that you make a payment immediately using a prepaid debt card, gift card or wire transfer. The IRS says it will first mail a bill to any taxpayer who owes taxes. In fact, the IRS' first form of contact with taxpayers is almost always through a mailed letter.

4. The caller doesn’t give you a chance to think

If a person claiming to be an IRS representative is on the phone with you and does not give you the opportunity to question or appeal the amount you supposedly owe, be careful. Forcing people to make quick, often bad, decisions is another sign of a scammer.

Criminals want you to make a decision while you are in panic mode. You’re more likely to fall for the scam and send in a payment. The actual IRS will give you the opportunity to prove that you don’t owe what the agency claims you do.

5. The caller threatens you with arrest

The IRS won’t threaten to have you arrested. The agency also won’t threaten to have you deported. Be suspicious, too, if the person calling you threatens to revoke your driver’s license or business license. These threats are standard tricks used by scammers to bully you into sending them money or personal information.

What should I do about fake IRS calls?

What should you do if you are targeted by a fake IRS call? Your best bet is to hang up. Don’t engage with someone you suspect might be a scammer. And if you’re unsure, hang up and then call the IRS directly at 1-800-829-1040 to see if you really were contacted by the service.

The Federal Trade Commission recommends that you never give out personal or financial information over the phone to someone claiming to be an IRS agent. If you keep that information to yourself, the scammer can’t use it against you.

The FTC also says that you should never send money by wire transfer, gift card or prepaid debit card to someone claiming to work with the IRS. Remember, the IRS will never request that you send it money with such a specific type of payment.

Report IRS scam calls

The Federal Trade Commission recommends that you report IRS scam calls to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration here. You can also report these calls to the Federal Trade Commission here.

The IRS recommends that you provide the telephone number of the caller if your Caller ID picked it up. If the scam comes in the form of a robocall, you can report the number that the robocall instructed you to call.

Cyber threats have evolved, and so have we.

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Dan Rafter
  • Dan Rafter
  • Freelance writer
Dan Rafter is a freelance writer who covers tech, finance, and real estate. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and Fox Business.

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