More than 2.4 million people in the US have been targeted by IRS impersonators, with more than 14,700 victims losing a total of $72.8 million. The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) has called the IRS impersonation scam “the largest, most pervasive impersonation scam in the history of the IRS.” Learn how IRS impersonations and phishing attacks are used to trick victims and how to better detect and avoid it.
The Most Pervasive Impersonation Scam in the History of the IRS
A sophisticated impersonation scam has hit some US taxpayers hard in recent years.
IRS impersonators may call their victims claiming to work for the IRS or another law enforcement agency, even providing fake IRS badge numbers. Victims are told that they owe taxes that must be paid immediately under the threat of arrest, suspension of a business or driver’s license, or deportation.
While many scammers go after vulnerable targets, such as elderly people and immigrants, those who would appear less vulnerable are targeted—and fall for—the scam as well.
Tax-Related Phishing Schemes Have Increased 60 Percent
The IRS reported a 60 percent increase in the number of tax-related phishing schemes in 2018.
Scammers may create realistic-looking fraudulent messages that display the IRS logo or are designed to look like official communications from another organization, such as a tax software company. The emails may trick victims into thinking they are eligible for a refund or that they need to update their IRS e-filing status. Fraudulent messages may even be sent to the victim’s phone via text.
If the victim clicks on the link, they may unknowingly be sending their personal or financial information directly to the criminals via a fake website, or their computer may be infected with malware that can be used by criminals to access files or track keystrokes.
It’s Crucial to Know How the IRS Typically Does—and Does Not—Contact Taxpayers
Perhaps one of the most important things for taxpayers to know is that the IRS typically initiates contact with taxpayers through regular mail delivered by the United States Postal Service.
According to the IRS, its agency will not:
- Call to demand immediate payment using a specific method, such as a prepaid debit card, gift card, or wire transfer
- Threaten to bring in local police or other law enforcement
- Demand payment without providing the opportunity to question or appeal the issue
- Threaten a lawsuit
- Leave pre-recorded, urgent messages asking for a call back
- Send an unsolicited email to collect a pending refund or to update an account
- Request any sensitive information online
- Initiate contact by email, text message, or social media to request personal or financial information
- Ask for credit or debit card numbers over the phone
In recent years, the IRS began using a third-party debt collector to contact taxpayers regarding back taxes.15 However, by law, both the IRS and the private debt collector will notify the taxpayer by mail first.
Protect Yourself Before Tax Season Begins and Year-Round
The good news is that there are preventative steps you can take to help better protect yourself and your loved ones from tax-related identity theft. Download the paper, Tax-Related Identity Theft: How to Better Detect and Avoid It, to learn about the dangers of IRS impersonation, how tax-related identity theft can impact children and dependents, and steps you can take to protect yourself both during tax season and year-round.
If you suspect that you have been targeted by an IRS impersonator, the IRS provides the following advice to taxpayers:
- If you have no reason to think you owe taxes, hang up immediately and report the incident to the US Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) on their IRS Impersonation Scam Reporting page and to the FTC through their FTC Complaint Assistant page.
- If you are concerned you may owe taxes, review your tax account information online on the official website of the IRS, and call the number on the written billing notice, or contact the IRS at 800-829-1040.