The IRS Stimulus Payment Scam: What It Is and How to Protect Yourself

Don't get fooled by fake websites asking for personal info

Stimulus check scams are commonly used by fraudsters at any time when they know that the IRS is issuing stimulus packages to individuals. Some can be reasonably smart scams using a fake website to dupe you into thinking you're an official government site. Here's everything you need to know about the IRS Stimulus Payment Scam, as well as how to protect yourself so you don't become a victim.

What Is the IRS Stimulus Payment Scam?

The IRS Stimulus Check Scam involves someone getting in touch with you stating they're from the IRS (Internal Revenue Service) and saying they need money or some kind of personal information from you before they're able to send you your refund or stimulus payment. 

There are slight variants to each message, but they all follow a similar theme, stating that you must submit the information otherwise you won't receive your stimulus payment. 

One particularly sneaky scam has the scammer send out fake checks to households then requiring you to verify the check online or by calling a number. Others involve receiving a 'stimulus check' for an odd amount which will never happen via the Treasury. 

A conceptual illustration of an IRS Stimulus Payment scammer.
Lifewire / Theresa Chiechi 

How Does the IRS Stimulus Payment Scam Work?

The IRS Stimulus Payment scam relies on you believing the fake you've received is a real message from the IRS. These messages can be sent via email, text, social media message, or may even come as a phone call. In all cases, the method is roughly the same. It relies on you panicking that you'll miss out on a much-needed payment because you haven't provided the right information. 

Sometimes, you may be asked to pay the person directly over the phone or via email. Other times, they may send you a link to click through to a website where you can submit the information or payment. Whatever the method, it's a scam. 

Emails and callers typically use the words "stimulus check" or "stimulus payment" while the official term used by the IRS is "economic-impact payment". It's worth remembering this any time you get a potentially convincing email.

The IRS won't get in touch to ask you to verify or provide extra information but it's easy to think that they might. The IRS will also never request a fee from you in exchange for completing the stimulus payment. 

How Do IRS Stimulus Payment Scammers Find Victims?

As with many scams, often victims are picked by random. The scammers may have found your email address listed under a substantial data breach with another website, or they may be picking random phone numbers or social media accounts.

Generally, the more secure your social media account is, the less likely they'll pursue you there but ultimately, there's a certain amount of bad luck here. All a scammer needs to do is to have a directory of random phone numbers or email addresses to message and hope someone takes the bait.

How Do I Avoid Getting Involved in This Scam?

It's tough to avoid being sent such scams as it's often randomly conducted by scammers who can find your number or email address online, especially if you've signed up for services that may have suffered data breaches. However, you can learn to spot potential fraud early on, possibly saving yourself considerable hassle. 

During the Coronavirus pandemic, many scammers are using the virus to scare people into falling for their tricks. Learn to spot signs specifically linked to the COVID-19 outbreak too.

Don't engage with the scammer. Hang up on suspicious phone calls, and never reply to emails or click on suspicious links. When in doubt, assume it's a scam and don't get involved. 

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

Has the IRS supposedly gotten in touch with you and you responded to it? You may already be a victim, but don't panic. Check the status of your check with the Get My Payment tool on the IRS website but don't use any other websites or services to check this. 

If something doesn't add up:

  • Get in touch with your bank to let them know what happened and file a fraud claim. This is particularly important if you handed over banking details to the scammer. 
  • If you downloaded any software or visited any potentially nefarious websites, run antivirus and anti-malware programs from trusted sources to check your computer is safe.
  • Change all your passwords, then file a police report so that it can be investigated. 
  • Report the scam to the Federal Trade Commission, and forward any emails to phishing@irs.gov

How Do I Avoid Being Targeted for the IRS Stimulus Payment Scam?

It's hard to avoid being targeted for the IRS Stimulus Payment scam as scammers know that most people will pay attention to such cons. However, you can practice basic internet safety by ensuring that you never give out your personal information to anyone untrustworthy. Choose strong passwords and keep your anti-virus software up to date at all times. Never click on unsolicited emails or messages and think before you interact with anything online. Remember that if it seems too good to be true, it almost certainly is.