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Dirty Dozen: Keep an Ear Out for Phone Scams

The April tax filing deadline is fast approaching and scammers are sure to take advantage of it, attempting to steal money or personal information from taxpayers and tax pros alike.

Phone scams—also called “vishing” (voice phishing)—once again made the IRS’ annual Dirty Dozen list, as they continue to be a major threat. The scheme itself continues to evolve and the newer variations have become more aggressive than their predecessors.

“Taxpayers should be on the lookout for unexpected and aggressive phone calls purportedly coming from the IRS,” said IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig. “These calls can feature scam artists aggressively ordering immediate payment and making threats against a person. Don’t fall for these.”

The bogus calls usually start early in the tax filing season. Scam phone calls threaten arrest, deportation or license revocation if the victim doesn’t pay a non-existent tax bill. Many times, the calls are “robo-calls,” recorded messages with instructions to call back a specific number. But they may also be made by a real person.

The scammers may have some of the victim’s information, including address, last four digits of their Social Security number or other personal data.

According to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA), these types of scams have cost nearly 15,000 victims more than $72 million since 2013.

How the Scam Works

Scammers make unsolicited calls claiming to be IRS officials and demand that the victim pay a bogus tax bill by sending cash through a wire transfer, prepaid debit card or a gift card. (Note: the IRS will NEVER demand payment of any kind using those methods.)

Often, scammers use threats to intimidate a victim into paying. They also are able to alter their caller ID to look like the IRS or some other official agency is calling. The callers many times use IRS employee titles with fake badge numbers to fool victims into thinking the call is legitimate.

These are some of the basic tactics of phone scammers, but remember these crooks are very adaptable and will change their methods whenever it suits them. The way to spot a scam phone call is to know what the IRS will not do. Make that quick comparison and the scam call is easy to detect.

What the IRS Will Not Do

The IRS will never:

  • Call to demand immediate payment using a specific payment method such as a prepaid debit card, gift card or wire transfer. Generally, the IRS will first mail a bill to any taxpayer who owes taxes.
  • Threaten to immediately bring in local police or other law-enforcement groups to have the taxpayer arrested for not paying.
  • Demand that taxes be paid without giving taxpayers the opportunity to question or appeal the amount owed.
  • Ask for credit or debit card numbers over the phone.
  • Call about an unexpected refund.

Phone scammers build their crime around fear; they attempt to make the victim afraid they may owe a tax bill that, in reality, doesn’t exist.

If taxpayers don’t owe taxes—or don’t believe they do:

  • Please report IRS or Treasury-related fraudulent calls to phishing@irs.gov (Subject: IRS Phone Scam).
  • Do not give out any information. Hang up immediately. The longer the con artist is engaged, the more opportunity he/she believes exists, potentially prompting more calls.
  • Contact TIGTA to report the call. Use their IRS Impersonation Scam Reporting web page. Alternatively, call 800-366-4484.
  • Report it to the Federal Trade Commission. Use the “FTC Complaint Assistant” on FTC.gov. Please add "IRS Telephone Scam" in the notes.

Those who owe taxes or think they do should call the IRS at 800-829-1040. IRS operators can help. Taxpayers can also go online to Tax Account Online and see their past 24 months of payment history, the payoff amount (if any) and balance of each tax year owed.

The Dirty Dozen list is an annual compilation of some of the schemes that threaten taxpayers, not only during filing season but throughout the year.

The IRS is highlighting each of these scams on consecutive days to help raise awareness and protect taxpayers. The IRS also urges taxpayers to help protect themselves against phone scams and identity theft by reviewing safety tips prepared by the Security Summit, a collaborative effort between the IRS, states and the private-sector tax community.

Bob Williams

Forget genes; I’ve got words in my DNA. Communication has been part of who I am nearly all my life. From a long career in radio news to another one in newspapers – and a University of Georgia journalism degree sandwiched between the two – language has been my life. I’ve also been fortunate to have learned the tax business from the ground up here at Drake, starting with 1040.com online forms some years ago before moving on to work on the Web. In all things tax-ish, we aim to give you tools you can use.

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