How To Spot A Sneaky IRS Scam

Tax season + phishing attacks = Hunting season (for scammers)

Every tax season a new IRS scam does the rounds and unfortunately a lot of people fall for the scam and have their personal information stolen. By clicking on any link in the list below you can see corresponding screenshots of real IRS phishing attempts:

Have you ever found any of those? Convincing, aren’t they? Most people fear the IRS because they know how powerful they are. Ironically, few people know the IRS well enough to know what they do and don’t do:

  • The IRS never demands money. You send it to the US Treasury.
  • The IRS never threatens you on the phone. Nobody can extort you for information.
  • The IRS never sends emails, SMS, or social media. They use traditional mail. Although they may correspond via email, they never initiate the first contact via email.

Then, what are these messages, and who’s behind it? If it’s not true, is the IRS trying to scam you?

Well, there’re cases of IRS employees misusing their client’s refunds, but that’s an exception. What you’ll find 99% of the time is IRS impostor/phishing scams.

You might want to learn about the tricks scammers use. If these catch you on a phone call, you’ll be too shocked to even look for the red flags.

IRS Scams: Have You Paid Your Taxes?

Scripts, forgery, confidence tricks, fake emails, cloned websites, phone number spoofing: you name it. Scammers will use 1001 strategies to get into your accounts.

Ironic. Once they steal your identity, they can get you into real trouble with the IRS. That doesn’t include collector calls, sucker lists, spam emails, unrelated debt, or fake claims.

In other words, you pay your taxes like any good citizen only to get into trouble. And the real IRS? They know nothing about this IRS message you received.

Anybody can pose as the government, and it’s not always easy to find out the trick. Unlike other institutions, the IRS is the best entity to demand money from taxpayers. You may not fall for a loan scam or a fake collector, but IRS scams work better.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4AdG7mXj4DU

Mind that the phishing attacks can be unexpected:

  • You find a Google result when you type IRS, but it links to a fake misspelled domain.
  • You visit forums like Quora, and one person gives an extensive answer, linking to a fake IRS site at the end.
  • A local scammer puts a fake IRS letter on your inbox.
  • An international con man hires work-from-home victims to deliver fake IRS letters for him.
  • You find fake IRS alerts on social media, redirecting you to a site.

You never know where the next message will come from, but at least you can protect as soon as you spot the red flags.

“IRS” VS IRS: Things Scammers Do That The IRS NEVER Does

Scams don’t just happen. As a con man, you have to engage, find prey, and reach out to them. However, the way scammers communicate with taxpayers has nothing to do with IRS practices.

You can avoid falling for an IRS scam. Many people think that if they just don’t file their taxes online that they are not subject to scams, but this is just not the case. You can be the victim of such a scam regardless of how you pay your taxes, or even if you don’t pay your taxes!

You too may be in danger if you don’t know how to protect yourself.

Here are examples:

#1 Contact

The real IRS never contacts you (except for mail); you do it. Unless they can prove they’re the IRS, or come in person, they won’t communicate. Email, phone, text-messages are unreliable.

What do scammers do? All the contrary. You could chat with the “IRS” on Facebook on a Friday evening if you wanted to. It’s easy to reach out except after they get what they want.

If they expect you to give money or share data, they follow up. For anything unrelated, getting a response is impossible. They’re more likely to phone you than receiving a call. They will send you an email, but not reply to yours.

#2 Proof

When the IRS wants to contact— especially unexpected contact— they say who they are, they show a certificate and tell what made them reach out.

To make the verification easier, you ask questions, and they answer them. The real IRS will show you where to sign in, so you can check if the issue is real. An IRS email is a bunch of words. But a notice you can find on the official page plus a support phone number to explain it, that’s proof.

#3 Flexibility

Even if you have problems with the IRS, it’s not as urgent and strict as impostors want to make you believe. The IRS rarely contacts you unless you were expecting them.

They use mail to inform, often months in advance. It’s never a surprise. If they do call on the phone, they can’t demand your money; law enforcement does that.

Unless you talked to support, most notices are automatic. The IRS won’t be looking one by one to collect taxes. 

Examples Of IRS Scams

If you owe money, the IRS wants it no matter how, and preferably soon. You know how to do it; they don’t need to give you links to send it, nor ask for wire transfers or “gift cards.”

Given the many IRS schemes, you may expect less than 1% of IRS messages to be real. Thus, assume it’s a scam unless they prove the contrary.

Here are the most common types:

#1 Phishing Messages

The scammer sends an email or SMS with a link. “We know what you’ve been doing.”  They mention one problem with your taxes which requires your attention.

Call to action? Send this amount to this address, upload this form, or create this account to check your debt. This is a phishing attempt and identity theft.

#2 Phone Call & Spoofing

Common knowledge: don’t take the call if you don’t know who’s calling. With spoofing, scammers can show any number they want.

You will get a robocall from what looks to be the IRS number. If you respond, they will show the (made up) details of your remaining payment. After they ask you for your sensitive data, they can steal your identity and never reach out again.

Scammers create phone scripts and start countless phone calls around the world, all at once. Similarly, you can download software to send SMSs for free to any number.

Learn how to avoid phone scams here.

#3 Tax Return Overpayment

The IRS will return you some money if you upload your last tax refund file. “It can take 2-9 business days. If the payment delays, revenue misstatement could be the reason.”

They send you to a fake IRS website to fill out a form. The fraudsters collect social security numbers, which they use to open other accounts.

If you check on the real site, you find no evidence about their claims.

#4 Ransomware / Spyware

As usual, you need to register somewhere to validate an error you never heard about before. But instead of filling out a form, you need to download a file that will manipulate your device.

“We’ve updated our privacy policy. Make sure you install the files below.”

“Complete a quick survey for the FBI for a reward. Download the software to start.”

You end up putting malware on your computer.

  • Adware programs will make hundreds of ads pop up all the time. The scammer makes money with ad impressions. Learn more about adware and how you can prevent it.
  • Spyware programs register your sensitive data to steal your information.
  • Ransomware locks your device until you pay a ransom of several thousand. If you don’t, the program either raises the price or deletes all your files.

#5 Mystery Phone Charges

You get an SMS about some issues going on with the IRS. “Please, call this number as soon as possible.”

You might find a robocall that tells you to press certain buttons. After the call, you’ve enrolled in several subscriptions without knowing it.

Sometimes, the person knows nothing about what you’re talking about. They only answer to patiently ask questions while charging you for an expensive phone number.

Learn more about cramming and “Mystery Charges”.

How To Avoid IRS Scams?

Nobody likes dealing with scammers. But nobody wants to ignore the real IRS by accident and get into trouble. How do you know you can trust the message?

  • Get Support. Get the official phone number, visit the IRS.gov website, and contact the employees. Ask them to check whether something went wrong with your files. You may have got a call from the “IRS,” but double-check anyway. Show them the email you got, or the phone number that called you.
  • Protect Your Data. Be cautious where you share your information. If you share it everywhere, scammers may find data breaches to get into all your accounts. If a scammer has already contacted you, someone may have sold your contact data to other scammers.
  • Know how the IRS works. The IRS can’t ask you for money, and if they do, they don’t use unusual payment methods: wire transfer, money orders, or P2P.
  • Ignore. If the IRS never contacted you before, a sudden reach out will likely be fake. The moment you get the same notice through multiple channels, you may want to investigate further.

The Bottom Line

Have you ever wondered where all the taxpayers’ money goes? IRS scams may be part of the answer. 

The next time you receive such notices, understand that over 90% of them are phishing impostors. Not even the real IRS can threaten or force you to take action. Ignore the message. You’ll find that none of their claims ever came true because they aren’t the IRS.

If you receive something that looks like it is from the IRS you should check it out before you simply send off your personal information. You can call the IRS and ask them if a refund is owed to you, and they will be able to answer you.

It is always better to check with the internal revenue service if you are not sure, or if something looks suspicious to hold off on responding until you know for sure that it is legit.

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