One of the most reliable indicators of a phone scam is that it claims to come from an authority of some sort: your bank, your credit card company, maybe even the police. The goal is to scare you enough to respond by doing what you’re told instead of taking a moment to think, “Hey, wait a minute….”
Calls claiming to come from the government, and especially from the IRS, can be incredibly intimidating. This raises an important question: Does the IRS call you in real life? Well, yes, they do, but in practice, it’s more of a “yes, but…”: The agency does indeed reach out by phone, but only in specific circumstances. Here’s how to tell the difference between a scammer and the real thing.
How IRS Scam Calls Work
There are any number of variations on the theme, but scammers claiming to be from the IRS are after the same two things as any other scammer: your money or your personal information (both, if they’re really ambitious). That goal dictates how they approach the call.
If they’re after money, the story will be some version of “you owe money to the IRS, and if you don’t pay up RIGHT THIS MINUTE, we’re coming after you with the full force of the law.” If they’re after your personal information (a phishing attack), the angle might be that you’re entitled to an unexpected refund, or more often that “there’s a problem with your account” or (ironically) “we believe you’ve been the victim of fraud.” Whichever ploy they choose, they’ll need to verify your personal information to fix it or send you the funds.
Some versions of these scam calls are more creative and seize topical opportunities to give their calls extra plausibility. In 2021, for example, callers sometimes claimed they were trying to straighten out a problem with your federal Economic Impact Payments (aka “stimulus checks”). Some claim to be from the Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS), a department within the IRS that actually does exist to help taxpayers resolve their issues with the agency.
When Is a Call From the IRS Legitimate?
To put fake IRS calls into perspective and learn how to identify them before you get hooked, it’s instructive to do a compare-and-contrast with legitimate IRS phone calls.
To begin with, the likelihood of a genuine IRS phone call arriving like a bolt from the blue is just about nil. While the agency’s representatives can and do reach out by telephone, it’s almost invariably as a follow-up. If you actually owe the IRS money, for example (or at least, if they have reason to think you do), you’ll get a letter first explaining the situation and giving you the opportunity to reach out to them to make your case or make things right. In the case of the TAS, you’ll only hear from them if you’ve initiated contact and requested their assistance. Either way, it won’t be a surprise.
More importantly, you should know there are several things you can expect a genuine IRS caller not to do:
- Threaten immediate legal action or police intervention
- Leave you a prerecorded message or IRS phone calls threatening a lawsuit
- Demand immediate payment
- Request your banking information, PIN or SSN, passwords, or other sensitive personal information
- Specify a required payment method, let alone one that’s difficult to trace or reverse, such as gift cards or wire transfer (tip: check the actual payment options here)
- Randomly call to tell you the government owes you money (seriously, that never happens in real life)
The scammer is trying to create enough urgency to set the hook, whether by appealing to your greed or (more likely) your fear. If you’re in a panic over your supposed “tax problem,” you won’t be thinking clearly enough to spot the implausibilities until it’s too late.
What To Do About IRS Scam Calls
If you receive what you believe to be a scam call, your first response should be the obvious one: Just hang up. You should also report the call to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) or by email to the IRS itself (put “IRS Phone Scam” in the subject line so it’ll be handled properly). The more information you can provide, the better: The number that showed on your caller ID, the number you were given to call back, the actual story you were told, and the date and time are all useful to the authorities.
If you’ve already fallen for an IRS phone scam, you’ll have more work to do. Your first step, if you don’t already have an online IRS account, is to create one. That way, you can see your tax information at any time and monitor it for changes. If you see any signs of tax-related identity theft, you should immediately complete an Identity Theft Affidavit.
You should also request an Identity Protection PIN, which changes every tax year and helps secure your account against scammers. You’ll need to prove your identity to the IRS, which will take a bit of time and effort, but once you have a PIN, it becomes exceedingly difficult for anyone else to file or claim benefits under your name.
Other Corrective Steps You Can (or Should) Take
While you’re bringing the IRS up to speed, there are other proactive steps you should take to protect yourself from the repercussions of the scam call. First and foremost, reach out to the “big three” credit-reporting agencies to let them know you’ve been compromised and request a copy of your credit report. You should also place a fraud alert or credit freeze, which will make it harder for scammers to misuse your personal information now that they’ve got it.
You should also report the incident to the FTC’s Report Fraud website (if scammers took your money) or IdentityTheft.gov (if they got your personal information). Those sites will help you create a recovery plan to minimize the impact of the scam. You might also report the incident to local law enforcement.
Spokeo and IRS Scam Calls
Spokeo can have a role to play too. If you receive one of these calls, look up the incoming number using Spokeo’s Reverse Phone Lookup tool. If the number isn’t associated with the IRS, you’ve got a scammer. Unfortunately, scammers can spoof a legitimate IRS number, so that’s not conclusive, but if a lot of scam calls have purportedly come from that number in recent weeks, that will show as part of Spokeo’s Phone Reputation Score. Again, it’s not conclusive, but scam complaints against a legitimate IRS number constitute a pretty big red flag.
If the caller (or message) gives you a number to call back, that’s a little more useful. A Spokeo search on that number is unlikely to reveal an IRS listing. It may not give you the scammer’s actual name, but it will yield location and carrier information that can help law enforcement agencies find the guilty party.
Finally, if you’ve given your personal information to a scammer, you might want to invest in identity protection through Spokeo Protect. You’ll get an alert when your key pieces of personal information are offered up for sale on the Dark Web, and a suite of other features including protection against financial loss, 24/7 customer support and the help of skilled (US-based) case managers to help you through the recovery process.
Vigilance Is the Best Defense
Ultimately your best defense against IRS scams — or any scams, really — is to cultivate a healthy and, above all, educated skepticism about incoming calls, texts and emails. The IRS does its best to help with identity-theft brochures, its Identity Theft Central website for consumers and its annual “Dirty Dozen” reports on the year’s most troublesome and widespread scams. They’re all essential reading.
A few other sources are also noteworthy, including the AARP’s Scams & Fraud page, the FTC’s Scams page, the Better Business Bureau’s “Scam Tracker” page and — of course — this very blog. Life contains few guarantees, but staying up to date on the current scams is one of the best ways to ensure that you never fall victim to a bogus IRS call or any other attempted fraud.
- US Internal Revenue Service: IRS Announces “Dirty Dozen” Tax Scams for 2021
- US Internal Revenue Service: IRS Warns of New Phone Scam using Taxpayer Advocate Service Numbers
- US Internal Revenue Service: Taxpayers Should Know the Signs of a Phone Scam, Especially During Filing Season
- US Internal Revenue Service: Paying Your Taxes
- Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration: IRS Scams and Fraud
- US Internal Revenue Service: Taxpayer Guide to Identity Theft
- US Internal Revenue Service: Form 14039, Identity Theft Affidavit
- US Federal Trade Commission: Report to Help Fight Fraud!
- IdentityTheft.gov: Report Identity Theft and Get a Recovery Plan
- US Internal Revenue Service: Identity Theft Information for Taxpayers
- US Internal Revenue Service: Identity Theft Central
- US Internal Revenue Service: Dirty Dozen
- AARP: Scams & Fraud
- US Federal Trade Commission: Avoiding and Reporting Scams
- Better Business Bureau: Scam Tracker