Fake IRS Letters: How to Identify Them and Protect Yourself

The IRS sends letters through the mail, but so do scammers

Some Internal Revenue Service (IRS) scams are really easy to spot, because they rely on phone calls and weird payment methods like prepaid credit cards. That's why some particularly devious scammers stick to the mail and send fake IRS letters in an attempt to fool taxpayers into paying fake bills. It can be really difficult to tell the difference between a fake IRS letter and a real one, so you have to be especially vigilant when IRS correspondence season rolls around each summer.

What Are Fake IRS Letters?

When a taxpayer owes back taxes, or there are any other issues that need to be sorted out, the IRS usually initiates contact by sending a letter. Knowing that, scammers will send fake IRS letters that look like the real thing in an attempt to fool you into paying money that you don't owe.

Fake IRS letters can look quite real if the scammer is skilled enough, but there are a few key things that you can look for. If the letter demands payment, check to see the requested payment method. The IRS will only request payment in the form of a check made out to the US Treasury.

If an IRS letter or bill asks you to write a check to the IRS, then it's fake. If it asks you to send payment in the form of a prepaid credit card or gift card, then it's clearly fake. If it asks you to call any phone number other than an official IRS number, then it's fake.

A person holds a final notice bill envelope.
AndreyPopov / iStock / Getty 

How Does the Fake IRS Letter Scam Work?

This scam starts with a letter. The letter may show up in your mailbox, or you may receive a notice of a certified letter and have to go pick it up at the post office just like a legitimate IRS letter.

Fake IRS letters usually look like the real thing, and will typically include the IRS crest, a fake case number, and other details that are designed to make it look legitimate.

The letter may claim that you owe back taxes, that you made a mistake on your taxes, or provide another reason that you owe money to the IRS. It may reference a potential lawsuit, include threats like asset seizure or jail, and will usually include both a dollar amount that you owe and a demand to pay immediately.

In some cases, the letter may ask you to call a phone number to discuss your options. If you call this number, the scammer may demand payment through gift cards or a wire transfer, or ask you to provide sensitive personal and financial details like your social security number or credit card number.

In any event, the fake IRS letter scam relies on scaring or intimidating you into taking action before you've thought things through.

Does the IRS Send Letters Through the Mail?

The IRS does send letters through the US Postal Service. In fact, that's the primary way that the IRS initiates contact if you actually do owe back taxes. However, there are some very important differences between real IRS letters and fake IRS letters.

When the IRS sends an initial letter, they never demand immediate payment. The first letter you receive from the IRS will typically inform you of the fact that the IRS believes there is an issue with your taxes. The letter will provide details, and you will be given the opportunity to appeal if you think the IRS is wrong.

Some fake IRS letters claim to come from the Bureau of Tax Enforcement. There is no such agency. If you receive a letter from the Bureau of Tax Enforcement, it's fake.

If you receive a letter from the IRS that demands immediate payment, and it's the first time you've heard about the matter, then the letter is probably fake. You can also check the payment method, as the IRS only accepts checks made out to the US Treasury.

For other payment methods, they will refer you to the IRS.gov/payments website. Legitimate payment options include bank account transfer, debit or credit card, bank wire transfer, check or money order, and even cash through retail partners, but never prepaid debit cards, gift cards, or checks made out to any entity other than the US Treasury.

How Do Fake IRS Letter Scammers Find Victims?

IRS letter scammers find potential victims through public databases like phone and address directories. This usually isn't a targeted scam, so scammers simply obtain a large number of names and addresses and send out as many fake IRS letters as they can.

How Do I Avoid Getting Involved in This Scam?

There isn't anything you can do to avoid receiving a fake IRS letter in the first place, but you can avoid becoming a victim by taking a few important precautions if you ever do receive a letter from the IRS.

IRS correspondence season, when the agency tends to send out the most bills and notices, is in the summer, but scammers know that. It's possible to receive a fake IRS letter in the summer, and it's also possible to receive a real IRS letter at any other time of year, so you can't use the time of year to judge authenticity.

The first thing to look for is an official seal, which real IRS letters have. Real IRS letters also include notice or letter numbers, which you can use to track them through the system and verify authenticity. If a letter lacks these markers, then it might be fake.

The biggest indicator of a fake letter is a demand that you pay immediately. If it asks you to make a check out to IRS, or anything other than the US Treasury, that's also a huge indicator.

The important thing to remember is that if the letter is real, you absolutely need to get into contact with the IRS to avoid additional enforcement actions and penalties. To do this, you should call the official IRS phone number: 1-800-829-1040 and provide them with the notice, letter, or case number from your letter.

If the letter is real, you'll have an opportunity to question the amount that they say you owe, but you will have to deal with the issue. If the letter is fake, they'll be able to tell from the fake notice, letter, or case number.

Contacting the IRS might be intimidating, but you have nothing to lose and everything to gain. If you really owe the IRS money, or there was some kind of error you need to deal with, ignoring it will only make the problem worse. If the letter is fake, then you'll avoid falling victim to the scammer.

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

It's easy to find yourself the victim of this scam, because the scammers do everything they can to seem legitimate. If you fell for their tricks and sent a payment, or even provided sensitive personal information, you need to report the scam to the appropriate authorities.

The IRS asks that you report scams like fake IRS letters to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration. You can report using their website, or you can call 1-800-366-4484.

You can also send an email to phishing@irs.gov using the subject line "IRS Impersonation Scam."

If you provided the scammer with information like credit card numbers or your social security number, you need to take steps to prevent the scammer from stealing your identity. Beyond that, we also have a useful list of steps to take after being scammed.

How Do I Avoid Being Targeted for the Fake IRS Letter Scam?

This isn't a scam you can avoid by taking precautions or being careful, because it isn't really a targeted scam. Fake IRS letter scammers just cast a wide net and hope to catch as many victims as they can, so you're just as likely to be targeted as anyone else.

Since you can't avoid becoming a target of this scam, all you can really do is look at any IRS letters you receive with a critical eye. Never blindly make a payment after receiving a single letter, and never call a number that's provided by an IRS letter if that number isn't also listed in the official contact section of the IRS website.