IRS Scam Calls: How to Identify Them and Protect Yourself

The IRS prefers letters to phone calls, so this scam is easy to spot

Internal Revenue Service (IRS) scam calls usually start heating up around tax season, but you can fall victim to this scam at any time of year. The scam typically involves a phone call, which may be a robo-call, where the scammer says you owe back taxes and must pay immediately.

A taxpayer receives an IRS scam call on their cellphone.
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What Are IRS Scam Calls?

IRS scam calls are a type of scam where the scammer impersonates an IRS agent. They claim you owe back taxes and insist you pay immediately. This is not the way IRS agents normally work, which makes the scam pretty easy to spot if you know what you're looking for.

How Do IRS Scam Calls Work?

The way this scam works is the scammer initiates contact via a phone call. The phone number may appear to come from a location like Washington, DC or Ogden, UT, or the scammer may even spoof a legitimate IRS phone number. In one variation of the IRS phone scam, they actually spoof the number of the Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS), which is a government organization that's designed to protect your rights as a taxpayer.

Once the scammer has you on the line, they will typically claim that you owe back taxes and insist that you make a payment immediately. They will usually demand payment via wire transfer or prepaid debit cards. This is a major clue that you're dealing with a scammer, as the IRS requests that all payments be made directly to the US Treasury.

The scammer may also attempt to attain information like your social security number or taxpayer identification number (TIN). They may even have information like the last four digits of your social security number. If you provide them with any personal information, they may use it to steal your identity or even file a fake tax return in your name.

IRS scam callers are often hostile and abusive, and typically demand immediate payment. This can be contrasted with actual IRS agents, who may be intimidating, but usually provide you with the opportunity to prove you don't owe taxes, and seek to create an equitable payment plan if you aren't able to pay your entire bill at once.

Will the IRS Call You?

When the IRS needs to get in contact, they send a letter. Under normal circumstances, the IRS will not call you on the phone, and they will not contact you via email, social media, or other similar methods.

There are some cases where the IRS will call an individual or a business to secure payment on back taxes, but these calls are almost always preceded by multiple letters sent through the U.S. mail.

For official information on this subject, the IRS provides a number of ways to verify that you're actually speaking with an IRS agent.

How Do IRS Scam Callers Find Victims?

Most IRS phone scammers have access to some of their victims' personal data, so it's likely they find victims through various data breaches. When a company's data is breached, long lists of names, addresses, phone numbers, and other details are often compiled and sold online. Scammers can also obtain similar information from companies that simply sell your data.

Since IRS phone scammers are just as likely to contact people who actually owe money as people who don't owe money, it's clear that they don't have any actual information from the government about real tax bills. That means anyone can be a victim, and that's why it's so important to be aware whenever your private information is included in a data breach.

How Do I Avoid Getting Involved in This Scam?

The most important thing you can do is to be aware of the fact that the IRS doesn't normally call people on the phone, that they never use robo-callers, and that they won't demand payment through wire transfers or prepaid debit cards.

If you receive a call from someone who claims to be from the IRS, never provide them with personal information like your social security number or taxpayer identification number, and never agree to send payment via any method other than direct payment to the US Treasury.

Even if the caller seems legitimate and provides a badge number, you should still be suspicious. Ask for a case number, and then call the official IRS phone number. They will be able to help you.

The official IRS phone number is 1-800-829-1040. If you receive a call from that number, it may be spoofed. Call the number yourself, and agents will help you determine if you have been targeted by scammers.

I'm Already a Victim. What Should I Do?

If you suspect that you were the victim of an IRS phone scammer, the IRS recommends you contact the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration to report the scam. You can use their website, or you can call 1-800-366-4484.

The IRS also recommends you report the scam to the Federal Trade Commission using the FTC Complaint Assistant website. When you fill it out, type "IRS Telephone Scam" in the notes section.

If you received a fake email instead of a phone call, you can forward it to phishing@irs.gov to report the scam.

How Do I Avoid Being Targeted for the IRS Phone Scam?

The tricky part about this scam is that you can't do anything to avoid being targeted. You can be proactive and be ready for potential attacks whenever your data is found in a security breach, but there isn't anything you can do to prevent such breaches or stop people from selling your information on the black market.

Since you can't really avoid being a target, all you can really do is remain vigilant. Remember that the IRS won't contact you via the phone under normal circumstances, doesn't use robo-callers to request a call back, and will never contact you via email, text, or social media.

If you ever receive a call that is supposedly from the IRS, hang up and call the official IRS phone number. That's the only way to be certain that you're talking to an actual IRS agent and not a scammer.