In what appears to be part of growing fraud aimed at college students, scammers posing as IRS agents are demanding that students pay a bogus federal student tax or face arrest or other penalties, the IRS and Federal Trade Commission are warning.

In yet another incarnation of IRS imposter fraud, scammers are telephoning students and telling them that they owe a "federal student tax"—a tax that doesn't even exist. They then direct the students to send their payments using a MoneyGram wire transfer or some other untraceable method. Those who simply hang up may receive follow-up calls.

The scammers employ several techniques to make the calls sound legitimate, including using so-called caller ID spoofing, in which incoming caller ID information appears on people’s phones as “911” or as the name of a government agency. The perpetrators can be convincing because they may have legitimate information about the students they call, such as the name of their schools.

“These scams and schemes continue to evolve nationwide, and now they’re trying to trick students,” said Commissioner John Koskinen in a statement issued by the IRS. “Taxpayers should remain vigilant and not fall prey to these aggressive calls demanding immediate payment of a tax supposedly owed.”

Officials did not say how much money the scammers were seeking, except that the amount varied greatly.

In September, the FBI issued an alert about another telephone scam targeting college students. In those calls, which may appear on caller ID to come from the FBI itself, the scammers advise students of delinquent student loans or dues, delinquent taxes, or even overdue parking tickets. As with the IRS scam, the students are directed to wire their payments.

How do the scammers get the contact numbers and other information to reach students? Trying to find out ourselves, we found websites offering lists of college and university student data, including telephone numbers.

College directories are another source. “In more innocent times, college directories were a great convenience to help students find each other," says Edgar Dworsky, a former Massachusetts assistant attorney general who founded Consumer World, a consumer resource site. "In these times, they are an invitation for telemarketers and scammers.” 

IRS fraud and impersonation scams are targeting others as well. Along with phone calls, scammers may contact would-be victims using email and texts. They often pretend to be from the government. But they also may say they’re from a company such as Microsoft, the E-ZPass tolling system or your electric company, among others.

A scammer may even pose as a grandchild, niece, nephew or other family relative in need of emergency cash for a medical emergency or because that person claims to have been arrested.

In some cases, scammers aren't seeking money, but Social Security numbers and bank account information that they can use to obtain credit or do other mischief in your name. In March, the IRS warned about a new scam in which imposters claiming to be agents called would-be victims on the pretense of trying to verify tax information.

What to Do

Be skeptical. If you receive an unexpected phone call, email, text or any other communication that appears to come from the government or a company, be wary. Don’t feel like you must cooperate because the caller asking you to pay your student tax claims to be from the IRS, the FBI or anywhere else, advises Dworsky. Keep in mind that these agencies will never call unexpectedly or direct you to send immediate payment by wire or prepaid card.

Verify. If it’s a phone call, consider calling back to find out if the call is legitimate. But don’t use the number the person provides or that appears on caller ID. Instead, find the number yourself by searching for it on the web. If the call is from someone you know, perhaps from a grandchild seeking money in an emergency, call back using the number you already have or ask someone else in the family for the person’s contact information. The same goes for email. Email return addresses can be easily faked, Dworsky says.

Never send money. The one thing these scams typically have in common, no matter whom they target, is a demand that would-be victims send money, typically by wire, debit card, or even gift card. “The IRS is never going to call and say: ‘Send us an iTunes gift card or pay your debt with a prepaid Green Dot card,’ ” Dworsky says.

Don’t hand over personal information. No matter how genuine a caller seems, never provide your Social Security or bank account numbers or other sensitive information. Limit the information you put online. If you post information about yourself, your family or friends, scammers can use those details to make it appear as though they know you, making a scam seem more legitimate. To avoid the student tax scam, consider asking your college or university to limit or delete your contact information from its public campus directory, especially if it doesn’t require visitors to enter a user name and password, Dworsky advises.

Report fraud attempts. If you suspect fraud, you can file a report with the Federal Trade Commission and the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center. You can report tax agent impersonation fraud to the IRS.