By now, most readers have heard about fraud perpetrated by criminals posing as IRS agents.
Scammers have reached people by telephone, email and even video relay, a service for the deaf and hard of hearing.
These types of scams are becoming more common and more sophisticated. The IRS saw an approximate 400 percent surge in phishing and malware incidents in the 2016 tax season.
Over the phone, the scam goes generally goes like this: They call you and demand immediate payment of a supposed unpaid debt. The IRS won’t do that; it will start with a bill in the mail.
Scammers will ask for a specific method of payment that is hard to trace: a prepaid debit card, wire transfer or even a gift card like an Amazon card. Or they may ask for credit or debit card numbers while they have you on the phone.
In reality, the IRS accepts multiple methods of payment: checks, credit cards, debit cards and bank account transfers. It will even let you apply for an installment plan.
Scammers will make threats, such as to call the police or immigration authorities. They will demand immediate payment.
The IRS doesn’t do this. It will give you time to dispute the debt by filing a written request.
It used to be that you could simply hang up on any phone call claiming to be from the IRS because the agency contacted taxpayers only by good old-fashioned snail mail.
But a policy change will make it less likely for the public to discern a scam.
In April, as reported by consumer financial expert Adam Levin in the Huffington Post, IRS chief John Koskinen announced that the IRS will now outsource some activities to four private debt collection companies: CBE Group of Cedar Falls, Iowa; Conserve of Fairport, N.Y.; Performant of Livermore, Calif.; and Pioneer of Horseheads, N.Y.
You see where I’m going with this. These are debt collectors. They are going to call people on the phone. And people will be surprised that the call actually is from the IRS.
If you do get a phone call asking for unpaid tax debts, you could verify that the request is coming one of those four companies. And in general, the above guidelines still apply. Collectors aren’t supposed to make threats or demand immediate payment. They should accept multiple forms of payment, and all payments should go to the United States Treasury or through the official electronic pay system at IRS.gov.
Over email the scams get even trickier. Instead of asking for money outright, a “phishing” scam is trying to get your personal information in order to commit identity theft. A “malware” scam downloads harmful software onto your computer when you click a link.
Therefore, emails might not talk about money you owe. Instead, they promise a refund. Or, ironically, they may pose as an anti-fraud email.
One example of a fake email posted on the IRS website reads: “The Internal Revenue Service Antifraud Commission has found three fraud attempts regarding your bank account … unblock your founds (sic) by accessing the link provided here.”
When you go to the link they want you to enter your bank account information. It’s like handing over your debit card and PIN to a mugger.
By the way, a good guideline for spotting phishing emails is that they will have typographical errors like the one above. That’s because a lot of phishing scams are initiated outside the United States by non-native English speakers.
Official advice is to ignore all emails that claim to come from the IRS.
“Taxpayers should avoid opening surprise emails or clicking on web links claiming to be from the IRS,” said IRS Commissioner John Koskinen in a recent statement. “Don’t be fooled by unexpected emails about big refunds, tax bills or requesting personal information. That’s not how the IRS communicates with taxpayers.”
The IRS asks that if you receive a questionable email you forward it to email@example.com.
Anya Kamenetz’ most recent book is “The Test: Why Our Schools Are Obsessed with Standardized Testing, but You Don’t Have to Be.” She welcomes your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.