It's shocking to pick up your phone and hear a gruff voice claiming to be from the Internal Revenue Service, advising you that an enforcement action is proceeding against you and asking you to return the call immediately or face serious consequences.
The first time it happened to me, I just laughed and hung up. The second time, it came in the form of a message -- and I decided to save it and maybe call the FBI. By the third message, I was about to dial my accountant until I noticed the same distinctive, slightly foreign accent indicating the same person made the last two calls, even though it appeared they came from far different area codes.
The FBI directed me to the website that the Treasury Department has set up because it has received reports of more than a million of these fraudulent contacts claiming to be federal agents. It appears that more than 5,000 people have been scammed into paying at least $29 million as a result of demands that they send cash via prepaid debit cards, money orders or wire transfers.
The website is TIGTA.gov, and it is the site of the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration. There is a red box featured prominently on the homepage where you can report these fraudulent acts and learn more about how to deal with them.
Here's what the Treasury Department wants you to know:
The IRS never calls you: All contacts from the Internal Revenue Service are made by certified mail. Period. And the IRS never asks you for credit card or banking information over the phone.
Just hang up: That's the advice from the Treasury Department. Don't respond to the caller, and don't call back if you receive a voicemail threatening action for avoiding an IRS collection matter. If you don't give them any feedback, they are likely to stop calling after a few tries.
What if you think you might owe taxes? Hang up on the caller and contact the IRS directly at 800-829-1040. There you can get confidential and secure information about your personal tax situation -- after you answer identifying questions that only you can answer correctly.
Report the scam attempt: At TIFTA.gov, you can click on the red box "IRS Impersonation Scam" and fill out the form. Or call TIGTA at 800-366-4484. If you have the numbers from which you were called in your cell phone record, the Treasury Inspector General will include them in their counter-offensive, which consists of use an auto dialer to call the scammers and hassle them back!
Beware of email "phishing" scams in the name of the IRS: Never open an attachment to one of these emails and never click on a link in this kind of email. The IRS does not contact you by email. But you can forward any scam emails to email@example.com.
According to the FBI, you would be surprised at who is most vulnerable to these scams. I assumed they were directed at seniors, but that's far from the case. Millennials seem to be the group hardest hit. They are less sophisticated about how the IRS works, and given their student loans and other debts, they are more willing to believe they could be in arrears with the government.
The very words "IRS tax lien" strike terror in most hearts. There's nothing worse than being on the outs with government tax collectors. But this is not how the IRS does business. And that's The Savage Truth.
Terry Savage is a registered investment adviser and the author of four best-selling books, including "The Savage Truth on Money." Terry responds to questions on her blog at TerrySavage.com.