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IRS Impersonation Scams to Watch Out For

Updated: May 10

A screenshot of the official IRS website.
Internal Revenue Service (IRS) impersonation scams are rampant, especially during tax season. In this article, we take a look at the most common IRS impersonation scams and how you can protect yourself.

Right up front: the IRS will never email, call, or text you. The IRS never initiates contact with taxpayers via email, text, or social media regarding a bill or tax refund.

The IRS will only communicate using the U.S. Postal Service. And even if you do receive mail from the IRS, it’s recommended you call them using the contact number on their website, instead of the number printed on the mailpiece.

There’s many IRS impersonation scams proliferating around, each to varying degrees of believability. But then again, scammers wouldn’t conduct these scams if they weren’t successful in the first place.

Unclaimed Refund Scam

One of the latest scams to look out for is the unclaimed refunds scam, where scammers try misleading people into believing they are owed a refund. These false notices can be sent using text, email, and even delivery services; some people have reported receiving printed and “signed” letters with the IRS masthead, complete in cardboard envelopes.

Like most scams, the notice includes false contact information and a phone number that doesn’t belong to the IRS. This scam also seeks a variety of sensitive personal information from its potential victims – including detailed pictures of driver’s licenses – that can be used by the scammers to try and obtain a tax refund among other sensitive financial information.

“This is just the latest in the long string of attempts by identity thieves posting as the IRS,” IRS Commissioner Danny Werfel said when asked to comment on it for an IRS news release. “People should be careful to watch out for the red flags that clearly mark these as IRS scams.”

If you receive mail from the IRS, don’t call them using the number printed. Call them using the contact number on their website.

Offer in Compromise Mill Scam

The IRS is strongly warning taxpayers about Offer in Compromise (OIC) mills that try to mislead people into believing their tax debt can be settled for pennies on the dollar.

There’s been constant, heavily advertised promises from these OIC mills, offering to settle taxpayer debt at steep discounts. But in many situations, taxpayers that apply for these services don’t meet the technical requirements for an offer. The OIC promoters, knowing this, charge excessive fees to their customers and supply them with information that could be easily obtained.

“This is a legitimate IRS program,” Werfel said. “But there are specific requirements for people to qualify.” Werfel recommends that taxpayers review easily available IRS resources to help resolve their tax debt first, before approaching one of these aggressive promoters.

OIC mills often just get the same offer that you would’ve received, had you worked directly with the IRS yourself.

IRS Arrest Scam

Scammers will often prey on seniors by calling them posed as IRS agents and threatening to send law enforcement to arrest them, should the victim not immediately send the scammers money. In fact, this is such a common scam that bank tellers have been known to squash it at the teller line, because so many customers have come in and requested to withdraw or wire funds for an IRS debt.

With an IRS arrest threat, a scammer is using all the tactics of a classic scam: urgency, threats, and duress. Together, these elements are intended to intimidate the victim beyond critical thinking.

Additionally, these scammers will demand to stay on the phone until funds have been wired from the bank. And, in what should be a massive red flag, they sometimes also direct victims to buy gift cards and read the card serial numbers aloud on the phone to remit payment.

The IRS is never going to call to collect payments. Law enforcement is never going to advise someone that they’re coming to arrest them. And furthermore, no legitimate entity will ever accept gift cards as payment.

Spear Phishing Scam

Spear phishing scams target individuals and groups. In a spear phishing attack, scammers will try to steal client data and tax preparers’ identities to file fraudulent tax returns and pocket the refunds. Spear phishing can be tailored to attack any type of individual, business, or organization, so regardless of disposition, everyone must be skeptical of emails requesting financial and personal information.

One recent example of a spear phishing email went so far as to use the IRS logo and a variety of subject lines, such as “Action Required: Your account has now been put on hold” to steal tax professionals’ software preparation credentials.

In this instance, the scam email contained a link that, if clicked, would send the victim to a website displaying logos of several tax software preparation providers. Clicking on any of these logos prompted a request for tax preparer account credentials. You can guess what would happen next.

The IRS warns tax professionals not to respond to these emails and to never take any of the steps outlined in them. Similar spear phishing emails have been observed, claiming to be from tax preparation application providers.

If an email claims to be from the IRS, don't buy it.

Protecting Yourself Against IRS Impersonation Scams

To keep things simple, remember that the IRS will never:

  • Call to demand immediate payment using a specific payment method, such as a wire transfer, prepaid debit card, or gift card. If a taxpayer owes taxes, the IRS will first mail a bill to them.

  • Demand payment without the opportunity to question or appeal the amount they say is owed. Taxpayers have rights, and those rights should be carefully read.

  • Threaten to engage local police, immigration officers, or other law enforcement to arrest someone for not paying taxes. The IRS cannot revoke a driver’s license, business license, or immigration status. These are the most common threats scammers use to coerce victims into paying up.

Did you know that there’s a protocol for what the IRS will do?

If an IRS representative visits you, they will always provide two forms of official credentials: a pocket commission, and a HSPD-12 card. HSPD-12 is a government-wide standard for secure and reliable forms of identification for federal employees and contractors. You have the right to see these credentials.

And if you want to verify the information presented on a representative’s HSPD-12 card, they will provide you with a dedicated IRS telephone number for verifying their identity.

You can always report scams and fraud at the U.S. Treasury Inspector General website and through the Treasury Inspector General Office, at 800-366-4484.


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