The 10 Top IRS Scams of 2020 (And How to Protect Yourself)

Learn to identify and avoid these devious IRS scams

Scammers use people's fear of the IRS to orchestrate IRS scams designed to extract payment for fake tax bills, phish sensitive information, and commit other fraudulent acts. We've assembled the ten most common, and dangerous, IRS scams, including information on how to avoid them and what to do if you're a victim.

IRS SCAM written on a notepad.
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As a taxpayer, you have a number of taxpayer rights, like the right to be informed, and the right to question any claims made by the IRS. If someone claims to be from the IRS, but they violate your rights, you're probably dealing with a scammer.

01
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IRS Scam Calls

A fake IRS call on an iPhone.

Pixabay

IRS scam calls form a very broad category where scammers contact their victims over the phone. Variations of this scam involve the scammer demanding immediate payment of delinquent taxes via strange methods like iTunes gift cards, demanding personal information like your social security number, and even threats of a lawsuit or jail time.

Most IRS scam calls are placed as robocalls, so the victim is usually asked to call the scammer using a fake IRS phone number.

Since the IRS doesn't initiate contact by calling taxpayers, this type of scam is easy to identify. If you are ever called by someone who claims to represent the IRS, ask for their badge number and your case number, and then call the IRS using the official IRS 800 number.

You can reach the IRS at 1-800-829-1040, or check out additional contact information on the IRS website.

02
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Fake IRS Letters

A fake IRS letter.

This scam involves the scammer sending a letter that says you owe back taxes. The letter will usually demand immediate payment, and it may request a check, prepaid credit card, or other method of payment. The letter may reference a lawsuit or jail time in an attempt to scare you into paying.

The IRS really does send letters to inform taxpayers of delinquent taxes and other issues, so this scam can be tough to spot. The biggest hint is that fake IRS letters will usually ask for you to write a check to the IRS or some other entity, while the real IRS only accepts checks that are made out to the U.S. Treasury.

There are a number of other ways to identify a fake IRS letter, but the easiest option is to just call the IRS using their official 800 number. Give them your name, explain that you received a letter, and they'll help you determine whether or not it's fake.

03
of 10

IRS Email Scams

A fake IRS email.

IRS email scams are a lot like fake IRS letter scams, but they use email instead of physical letters. These scams often demand payment through strange methods like gift cards and prepaid credit cards, although IRS phishing attempts are also made through email.

To avoid becoming a victim of an IRS email scam, never click a link or call a phone number you find in an email claiming to be from the IRS. The IRS doesn't use email as a primary contact method, so any email you get that seems to be from the IRS is probably a scam.

You can call the IRS 800 number to make sure that you don't actually have any tax issues, or just forward the suspicious email to phishing@irs.gov.

04
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IRS Phishing Scams

A credit card on a fishing hook in front of a laptop.

magann / iStock / Getty 

IRS phishing scams use a number of attack vectors, including phone calls, letters, email, and even fake tax preparation services. In each case, the object of this scam is to obtain your personal and financial information, not to trick you into paying money up front.

If you provide sensitive information to an IRS phishing scammer, they can use it to steal your identity, file a fake tax return in your name, apply for credit cards and loans, and more.

This type of scam can do a lot of damage, so it's important to be proactive and learn how to protect yourself from phishing. If you've already been scammed, you'll need to contact your bank and the police, freeze your credit, and take other damage control measures.

05
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The IRS Lawsuit Scam

A judge pictured out of focus behind a tax law binder.

 utah778 / iStock / Getty

The IRS lawsuit scam tries to fool you into paying a tax bill that you don't owe by threatening a lawsuit and even jail time. This scam usually starts with a phone call, which is a red flag.

While the IRS will eventually resort to the legal system to obtain back taxes, and you can even go to jail for not paying your taxes, it's a long and drawn out process. The IRS will never initiate contact by calling and threatening to sue you.

Variations of this scheme use email and physical mail instead of a phone call, but the object is always the same. The scammer will usually say that if you pay immediately, the lawsuit won't happen.

If you're targeted by this scam, contact the IRS immediately.

06
of 10

Tax Return Preparation Fraud

A statue of Lady Justice in front of a tax consultation office sign.

 Pixabay

This is a particularly devious type of IRS scam, because it involves a breach of trust on the part of the person or company you trust to prepare and file your tax returns.

There are a lot of different variations that range from phishing, where the scammer poses as a tax professional to obtain your social security number and financial information, to bogus tax preparation services that promise unrealistic tax refunds if you sign a blank return and leave it to them.

The best way to avoid this scam is to stick with people and companies you trust. If you aren't able to do that, the IRS has a lot of tips to help you identify fraudulent tax preparation services.

07
of 10

Tax Avoidance Schemes

Tax evasion paperwork pictured with handcuffs, a calculator, and financial documents.

designer491 / iStock / Getty 

This type of scam is particularly dangerous, because the scammer will usually try to obtain some type of payment or sensitive information from you, and then you can end up getting in big trouble with the IRS if you follow their bad advice.

Tax avoidance schemes can come up in a number of contexts, including both real and fake tax preparation services, internet and television ads, fake storefronts, and even local community groups.

The scammer will typically try to convince you to buy into some type of offshore tax avoidance scheme, to falsify your income or pad your deductions, to use frivolous arguments to get out of paying taxes altogether, and other related techniques. They may offer to sell you information on how to pull these schemes off, or it may come as an offer of additional services from a tax preparation company.

The problem here is that you're the one who will be held liable if you're caught attempting any sort of sneaky tax avoidance scheme. Stick to trusted tax preparation services, stay away from anything that seems too good to be true, and you'll be fine.

08
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Fake Charity Deduction Scams

A solicitation for online donation.

fotosipsak / E+ / Getty 

The IRS allow you to take a deduction whenever you make a donation to a qualifying charity, so fake charity scams pop up every year ahead of tax season. These scams present you with a fake charity that looks legitimate, and you may even run into fake charities that are deceptively similar to well-known national or international organizations.

Telling the difference between a real charity and a scam can be difficult, so the IRS has some tips to help you avoid becoming the victim of a fake charity.

Always research to make sure a charity is legitimate, always pay with a check or credit card, and never give your financial information to a charity that solicits donations by phone, email, or shows up in an online advertisement. If it sounds like something you want to donate to, do some research, verify that it's real, and make your donation through official channels.

09
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The Taxpayer Advocate Scam

A screenshot of the Taxpayer Advocate Service scam on an iPhone.

The Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) is a real organization within the IRS that's dedicated to helping taxpayers with a variety of issues. If you're experiencing economic harm, your tax problems haven't been resolved by using the normal IRS channels, or you just think the process isn't working correctly, you can contact the TAS for help.

Always looking for ways to take advantage of people, scammers will pose as representatives of the TAS. Some IRS phone scammers even spoof real TAS phone numbers when contacting their victims.

If you are ever contacted by someone who claims to work for the Taxpayer Advocate Service, never give them any sensitive personal or financial information. If you're really having tax issues, you can contact the IRS directly to get into contact with the TAS.

10
of 10

IRS Bureau of Tax Enforcement Scam

An illustration of the Bureau of Tax Enforcement scam using text messages.

Instead of just impersonating run off the mill IRS personnel, some scammers claim to be from the IRS Bureau of Tax Enforcement. Like other IRS scams, they may contact you via a phone call, letter, email, or even text message.

The Bureau of Tax Enforcement doesn't exist, which makes this scam is very easy to spot. If anyone contacts you about a tax debt, and claims to be from the Bureau of Tax Enforcement, hang up and report the incident to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration.

Other scammers will claim to be from a real IRS entity, like the IRS Criminal Investigation Division, or another division within the IRS.

While there is a chance that an IRS special agent could contact you via the phone, it's still important to take precautions. Ask for a badge and case number, call the official IRS 800 number, and they'll be able to let you know if the call was real or fake.