Watch out for tax-season robocall scams

IRS impersonators are out to get you

Published: May 04, 2015 06:30 PM

The phone message literally scared me silly. An official-sounding voice purporting to represent the IRS claimed I owed money on my taxes and that I had to pay immediately or risk a severe penalty. I like to think that I'm reasonably savvy about phone scams but due to a mistake by my accountant, I did owe the IRS. Without thinking things through, I assumed the call meant our ongoing dispute had been decided–against me–and I had to pay up. Heart pounding, I called my accountant to report that I was prepared to write a check.

And that's how I learned that I had nearly fallen for one of this year's most pernicious—and prevalent—phone scams.  

Robocalls can turn you into a scam victim. Read more about how to "Protect yourself from robocalls." 

Aggressive and threatening telephone calls by criminals impersonating IRS agents are at the top of the list of the Internal Revenue Service's annual "Dirty Dozen" list of tax scams for the 2015 filing season. The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) has received reports of nearly 300,000 attempts to perpetrate this scam since it first appeared in October 2013; nearly 3,000 victims have collectively been defrauded of over $14 million as a result.

As tax season approaches its peak, be alert for phone scams like this one. 

How you get scammed

Scammers "spoof" caller ID numbers to make it look as though they're calling from an IRS office. They use fake names and bogus IRS badge numbers; sometimes they say they represent the IRS Criminal Investigation and threaten police arrest, deportation, revocation of your driver's license and heavy penalties. They may claim to know the last four digits of your Social Security number. They leave "urgent" callback requests. They often demand that payments be made by prepaid debit card.

In a related scam, IRS impersonators may say you have a refund due and ask you to provide personal information so you can claim it–and they can steal your Social Security number.

"These criminals try to scare and shock you into providing personal financial information on the spot while you are off guard," says IRS Commissioner John Koskinen. "Don't be taken in and don't engage these people over the phone."

How can you tell if it's a scam artist on the phone, not the real deal?

How to tell if the caller is a scammer

The real IRS will usually contact you by regular mail or a certified letter, if it needs to contact you at all. It will never:

  • Call to demand immediate payment, nor will the agency call about taxes owed without first having mailed you a bill.
  • Demand that you pay taxes without giving you the opportunity to question or appeal the amount they say you owe.
  • Require you to use a specific payment method for your taxes, such as a prepaid debit card.
  • Ask for credit or debit card numbers over the phone.
  • Threaten to bring in local police or other law-enforcement groups to have you arrested for not paying.
  • Use email, text messages or any social media to address your personal tax issues involving bills or refunds.

If you do get a phone call from someone claiming to represent the IRS and asking for money, protect yourself by doing the following:

  • If you know or think you owe taxes, call your accountant or the IRS at 800-829-1040.
  • If you know you don't owe taxes, report the incident to the TIGTA at 800-366-4484 or at
  • Report the scam to the Federal Trade Commission's FTC Complaint Assistant.

And remember, it's important for regulators and policymakers to keep hearing from consumers. Consumers Union, the policy and action arm of Consumer Reports, has launched a campaign to push the major phone companies to provide free tools to block unwanted robocalls before they reach your phone. Right now, one of the most effective actions you can take is to make your voice heard by signing the petition at our website at

Catherine Fredman

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