Latest IRS Scams: How to Spot Them and Fight Back

Here's a list of recent IRS scams, 10 ways to spot impersonators and scammers, and how you can report them.
Tina Orem
Sabrina Parys
By Sabrina Parys and  Tina Orem 
Updated
Edited by Chris Hutchison

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IRS scams involve criminals impersonating IRS agents, other government employees or debt collectors over the phone, text, online or via the mail in an effort to trick you into sending them money for taxes, penalties or fees you don't actually owe.

Scammers are especially active during tax-filing season, and people lose millions of dollars a year due to IRS scams. Don’t be one of them. Here’s a list of recent IRS scams, tips on how to spot one and (perhaps) how to get some revenge.

The latest IRS scams

Have any of these happened to you?

1. 'Let us help you to apply for the employee retention tax credit'

The IRS has been monitoring a wave of tactics being used by scammers to promote and misrepresent the employee retention credit, a pandemic-era tax break for qualified businesses. Scammers have been encouraging businesses who do not qualify to apply with their help in order to either steal tax information or make money by charging a large fee for application assistance.

Per the IRS, these scammers have been using online, mail and radio/TV advertising to reach taxpayers and typically use time-sensitive, aggressive phrases such as "easy application process" and "find out if you're eligible in minutes."

In fact, the scams have grown so rampant that on Sept. 14, 2023, IRS commissioner Danny Werfel announced that the agency would pause the processing of new ERC claims until the end of the year and increase processing times for claims currently in review: "The IRS is increasingly alarmed about honest small business owners being scammed by unscrupulous actors, and we could no longer tolerate growing evidence of questionable claims pouring in."

Claims submitted prior to Sept. 14, 2023, will continue to be processed, but the agency urges businesses who were planning to file a new claim to work with a vetted and trusted tax pro or carefully review the requirements and wait to claim the credit. And if you've encountered or been approached by a scammer, you can report them to the IRS by filling out Form 14242 and sending it to the IRS Lead Development Center in the Office of Promoter Investigations.

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2. "Get a large refund by creating your own W-2"

Submitting false information to the IRS could land you in some seriously hot water. An honest mistake, such as a typo or forgetting to include income from a stray 1099, can be remedied, but falsifying information or altogether making numbers up in hopes of getting a larger-than-life refund is a big no-no. The agency could hit you with substantial penalties, including a $5,000 fine or even criminal charges.

Taxpayers who encounter social media scams encouraging them to input false information, incorrectly claim credits they do not qualify for, or claim household employees that do not exist should understand that these too-good-to-be-true schemes are exactly that. And remember, the IRS also gets a copy of your W-2 from your employer, so it can easily check what you submit against what your employer turned in.

3. 'We recalculated your tax refund and you need to fill out this form'

These scam emails display the IRS logo and use subject lines such as "Tax Refund Payment" or "Recalculation of your tax refund payment." It asks people to click a link and provide their Social Security numbers, birthday, address, driver's license number and other personal information in order to submit a fake form to allegedly claim their refund. These scammers may also sometimes use a ".edu" email address to target college students.

4. "Let us help you sign up for an IRS account

Setting up an online account with the IRS can get you access to valuable information, such as your payment history or a tax transcript. You can even sign up for and/or manage an IRS payment plan through the system. For the 2023 filing season, the agency is warning taxpayers to be especially wary of anyone who attempts to help them set up an account, as scammers may be attempting to steal sensitive information — such as Social Security numbers, tax identification numbers or photo IDs — under the guise of helpfulness. You can set up an online IRS account by yourself for free on the agency's website, and if you require assistance, work directly with the IRS.

Internal Revenue Service. Your Online Account. Accessed Mar 23, 2023.

5. 'Let us help you file a casualty loss claim'

Victims of natural disasters can be prime targets for scammers looking to get their hands on sensitive information such as a Social Security number or other financial records. Scammers may call, email or even reach out via social media, posing as fake charities or even claiming to be IRS agents who can help file a casualty loss claim. The agency urges taxpayers to ignore all unsolicited contact and instead call the IRS' disaster assistance line (866-562-5227) for official information about disaster-related tax help.

Likewise, before you donate to a charity that claims to provide aid to those affected by a natural disaster, make sure to vet the organization and ensure they are a qualifying tax-exempt organization if you plan to claim a charitable tax deduction.

6. 'We're calling from the FDIC and we need your bank information'

The Federal Depository Insurance Corporation insures bank deposits so that consumers won't lose all of their money if a bank fails. But it does not send unsolicited correspondence asking for money, sensitive personal information, bank account information, credit and debit card numbers, Social Security numbers or passwords. Scammers claiming to be from the FDIC are hunting for information they can use to commit fraud or sell identities.

7. 'We're calling to tell you your identity was stolen; you need to buy some gift cards to fix it'

In this trick, a criminal calls the victim and poses as an IRS agent. The criminal claims the victim's identity has been stolen and that it was used to open fake bank accounts. The caller then tells the taxpayer to go buy certain gift cards; later, the crook gets back in touch and asks for the gift card access numbers.

Also, the IRS will never deal in gift cards, so being asked to pay for your taxes — or do anything tax-related — with a gift card is an automatic red flag.

8. 'We'll cancel your Social Security number'

In this IRS scam, the criminal contacts the victim and claims that he or she can suspend or cancel the victim’s Social Security number.

"If taxpayers receive a call threatening to suspend their SSN for an unpaid tax bill, they should just hang up," the IRS says.

9. 'This is the Bureau of Tax Enforcement, and we're putting a lien or levy on your assets'

There is no Bureau of Tax Enforcement. Victims often receive a letter from the fake agency claiming that they have a tax lien or tax levy and that they had better pay the “Bureau of Tax Enforcement” or else.

10. 'If you don’t call us back, you’ll be arrested'

Criminals can make a caller ID phone number look like it's coming from anywhere — including from the IRS, the local police or some other intimidating source. But the IRS doesn’t leave prerecorded voicemails, especially ones that claim to be urgent or are threatening. Also, the IRS can’t revoke your driver’s license, business licenses or immigration status.

11. 'Use this Form W-8BEN to give us personal data'

Although the Form W-8BEN, which is called a “Certificate of Foreign Status of Beneficial Owner for United States Tax Withholding,” is a legitimate IRS form, criminals have been modifying the form to ask for personal information such as mother’s maiden name, passport numbers and PIN numbers.

(The real form is here.)

12. 'Click here to see some details about your tax refund'

These emails are intended to trick the reader into clicking on links that lead to a fake IRS-like website and expose the user to malware. The IRS never emails taxpayers about the status of their tax refunds. (We've collected in one place the links to track the status of your tax refund directly with the IRS or your state's tax authority.)

13. 'We’re from the Taxpayer Advocate Service and we need some information'

The Taxpayer Advocate Service is a legitimate organization within the IRS that helps people get assistance with IRS problems. But it doesn’t call taxpayers for no reason. Criminals are making phone calls look like they’re coming from the TAS office in Houston or New York, according to the IRS, and when taxpayers return the calls — scammers often tell victims they’re entitled to a large tax refund — the criminals ask for personal information such as a Social Security number.

14. 'Click on this to see your tax transcript'

In this scam, fraudsters send an email with an attachment they claim is the taxpayer’s tax transcript. (A tax transcript is a summary of a person’s tax return.) Although tax transcripts are a real thing that the IRS provides, the IRS does not email tax transcripts. You can request one directly from the IRS via your online IRS account or through mail.

15. 'You owe the federal student tax'

There is no federal student tax.

16. 'We don't need to sign your tax return even though we prepared it'

Anyone you pay to prepare your tax return must have a valid preparer tax identification number and must sign your tax return. Reluctance to sign your return is a red flag that the person is a "ghost preparer" who just wants to charge you a fee and split.

10 ways to spot IRS scams and impersonators

It is true that in rare circumstances the IRS will come to a home or business. But the agency's new policy of scaling back on unannounced visits makes the likelihood of this extremely low

. Unless you're being subpoenaed, served a summons, or your assets are in danger of being seized, the IRS generally won't show up on your doorstep.

And, in accordance with the new policy, if a face-to-face meeting is necessary, taxpayers will receive mailed letters or notices from the agency to schedule the meet-up first. Some other major red flags that can help tip you off to an IRS scam include:

  1. They’re calling you first. The IRS contacts taxpayers by mail first; it doesn’t initiate contact via a random phone call.

  2. They’re leaving a prerecorded voicemail. The IRS doesn’t leave prerecorded, urgent or threatening voicemails.

  3. They’re emailing you. The IRS doesn't initiate contact with taxpayers by email to request personal or financial information. Do not reply to the message, open any attachments or click on any links. And note that the IRS’s website is IRS.gov — not IRS.com, IRS.net, IRS.org or some other bit after the period.

  4. They’re texting you. The IRS doesn't initiate contact with taxpayers by text message to request personal or financial information.

  5. They’re contacting you via social media. The IRS doesn't initiate contact with taxpayers on social media channels to request personal or financial information.

  6. The form they’re sending or referencing doesn’t appear on the IRS website. You can look up the names of IRS notices and letters on the IRS website. If the type of notice you received doesn’t show up on the list, it’s probably not legit.

  7. They don’t know what an HSPD-12 card is. Real IRS agents have two forms of identification: a pocket commission and an HSPD-12 card. You have the right to see these credentials, and you can verify information on the HSPD-12 card by calling the IRS (go here for a list of IRS customer service phone numbers).

  8. They’re asking for a credit card or debit card number over the phone. The IRS doesn’t do that.

  9. They want you to pay only with gift cards or prepaid debit cards. The IRS doesn’t use these methods for tax payments. The IRS mails paper bills to taxpayers who owe taxes, and payment should only ever be made out to the U.S. Treasury — not a collections agency or other entity. (See some real ways to make an IRS payment.)

  10. They’re saying you’ll be arrested, deported, have your driver’s license revoked, etc. The IRS can’t revoke your driver’s license, business licenses or immigration status. They also cannot threaten to immediately bring in local law enforcement. In addition, the IRS and the Taxpayer Bill of Rights give you the opportunity to question or appeal what the IRS says you owe.

But what if I really do owe the IRS money?

If you think you might owe money to the IRS, you can check that directly with the IRS (and for free) by visiting https://www.irs.gov/payments/view-your-tax-account. If you do owe back taxes and want to make a payment, you can send money directly the IRS or sign up for an installment plan to pay the IRS over time. All of those things you can do yourself directly with the IRS.

Also be wary of what the IRS calls "OIC mills," or offer-in-compromise mills. These companies may advertise to people who do not qualify for the OIC program, claiming that they can resolve a tax debt for little-to-no cost or that you need to contract their services immediately in order to settle with the IRS. If you think you may qualify for a relief program, such as an offer in compromise, visit the IRS website directly and use its pre-qualifier tool to assess your eligibility.

Internal Revenue Service. Offer In Compromise Pre-Qualifier Print. Accessed Mar 23, 2023.

Fight back: How to report IRS scams

  • Tell the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA). You can report IRS scams online or by calling TIGTA at 1-800-366-4484.

  • Forward email messages or phone numbers that claim to be from the IRS to [email protected]. Do not open the attachments or click on any links in those emails.

  • Tell the Federal Trade Commission via the FTC Complaint Assistant on FTC.gov. Add "IRS Telephone Scam" in the notes.

  • Report Social Security Administration phone impostor scams using the form on the Social Security Administration's website.

  • If the IRS scams appear to be impersonating a state tax authority rather than the IRS, contact your state attorney general’s office.

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