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June 29, 2016

Is the IRS Investigating You?

Lately I've been receiving a lot of phone calls warning me that the IRS is filing a lawsuit against me.

This would be scary, except that I know it isn't true.

Fake IRS calls are a type of fraud that has become more common in the past few years. Fraudsters claim to be IRS agents, police officers, and other officials. They say that you owe back taxes and that if you do not pay immediately you will be subject to jail time, loss of your driver's license, or other penalties.

Sometimes the fraudsters send an email with links to an official-looking website that asks for personal and financial information.

Frightened taxpayers are intimidated into making payments to the fraudsters. Thousands and thousands of dollars have been lost this way. Even worse, many victims are further victimized by identity theft, because the fraudsters have obtained their personal information.

Many of the victims have done nothing wrong, but they are afraid of being audited, afraid of being arrested, afraid of losing their jobs, facing an angry spouse, or being shamed in the community if they are suspected of cheating on their taxes. So they just give in to the demands without stopping to think about what is really happening. Others may have failed to report income or pay taxes, and now they think the IRS has finally caught up with them, so they just pay. Sadly, they will have to pay again when the real IRS really does find them.

Sometimes the fraud is attractive, because the caller says that you are entitled to a big refund. They ask for your bank account information so they can make a direct deposit. They then use this information to steal all your money.

The fraudsters may seem convincing, because often they have a lot of personal information about you, possibly even the last four digits of your Social Security number. Unfortunately, this information is very easy to obtain. It does not prove the caller is legitimate.

It doesn't matter what the caller ID is on the phone, because caller IDs can be spoofed. It doesn't matter what the email address is, because, of course, email addresses are easy to fake.

So how can you tell if someone claiming to be from the IRS is real?
  • If the first contact you get from the IRS is a phone call, assume it's a fraud. The IRS initiates contact by mail, sending a bill or a letter on official government stationery.
  • IRS agents will never demand immediate payment over the phone. If someone asks for your credit or debit card number or your bank account information, it's a fraud.
  • IRS agents will never insist that you must pay your taxes in a certain way, such as a prepaid debit card. This kind of demand is always a fraud.
  • IRS agents will not call and threaten to file a lawsuit or have you arrested. They will not refuse you the opportunity to ask questions or file an appeal.
  • Legitimate IRS inquiries will not require you to send personal information by email or through a website.

What should you do if you think you may have been targeted by a scam?
  • If you speak to someone on the phone, ask for an employee badge number and callback number. You can then hang up and decide what to do next. Whatever you do, do not give the caller any personal or financial information.
  • If the caller is belligerent or threatening, don't argue. Just hang up.
  • If you get a threatening voicemail message, write down the caller's name, the callback number, and any other potentially useful info.
  • If you get an email, do not reply to it and do not click on any links or attachments. Forward the email to phishing@irs.gov and then delete it.
  • If you aren't sure whether the call or the email was legitimate, you can call the IRS at 800-829-1040 for help.
  • You can report fake IRS phone calls to the Treasury Department's IRS Impersonation Scam Reporting Site.
  • You can also report them to the FTC, using the phrase "IRS Telephone Scam" in the comments.

Breathe deeply, be calm, think about it, and stay safe.

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