Beware of fake IRS letters
Many taxpayers are aware that the IRS will never call to demand immediate payment over the phone, or call about taxes owed without first having mailed you a bill. To try and trick taxpayers, some scammers are sending letters, hoping that folks will take the bait.
In one version, the letter threatens an IRS lien or levy based on bogus delinquent taxes owed to a nonexistent agency called the “Bureau of Tax Enforcement.” There is no such agency. The lien notification may also reference the IRS to make you think that the letter is legitimate. The IRS warned taxpayers about this trick – and others – earlier this summer. You can read about those recent IRS scam warnings here.
Since then, taxpayers have continued to report receipt of fake IRS letters. Some variations of fake IRS letters claim that a warrant has been issued to a taxpayer because of unpaid tax obligations. As with previous scam efforts, the letter goes on to warn that the warrant could result in arrests or other criminal action if the taxpayer doesn’t pay immediately.
In some cases, the fake IRS letters have included facts about real tax debts. That’s scary for taxpayers because it feels legitimate, but keep in mind that some tax-related information, like liens that have been filed against taxpayers, may be available to the public. Don’t be frightened into giving up cash or personal information just because a scammer knows one or two facts about you.
Instead, use caution when replying to correspondence. The IRS does send letters to taxpayers. But there are some ways to spot a legit IRS letter from a fake one. Here are a few tips:
- A proper IRS letter will usually arrive in a government envelope and will include the IRS seal on the notice or letter.
- A legitimate letter will include a notice or letter number, most commonly found at the top right-hand corner. If there’s no notice or letter number, it’s likely a fake.
- A real IRS letter will typically include your truncated tax ID number and will note the tax year or years in question at the top right-hand corner of the letter.
- A bona fide letter will include IRS contact information – usually a 1.800 number found at the top of the letter near your identifying information. If there’s no contact information or if it appears to be a personal or cell number, the letter is likely a fake. If there is contact information but you’re not sure that it’s legitimate, you can always call the IRS directly at 1.800.829.1040.
- A letter from the real IRS will also include additional information about your rights as a taxpayer (thanks, Nina Olson) such as Publication 1 (downloads as a PDF) or an explanation of your appeal rights and other options. The real IRS will not threaten to arrest or deport you.
- Finally, a legitimate collection letter will note your payment options, including how to pay any balance due. If the letter asks you to write a check to any party other than the U.S. Treasury, furnish credit or debit card information over the phone, or to pay using iTunes or other gift cards (more on that here), it’s a fake.
And with tax scams coming from all directions this season, don’t forget about the phones: the IRS says that phone scams are still “a major threat to taxpayers.” That’s why phishing and phone scams topped the 2019 “Dirty Dozen” list. Don’t engage or respond with scammers. Here’s what to do instead:
- If you receive a call from someone claiming to be from the IRS and you do not owe tax, or if you are immediately aware that it’s a scam, just hang up.
- If you receive a robocall or telephone message from someone claiming to be from the IRS and you do not owe tax, or if you are immediately aware that it’s a scam, don’t call them back.
- If you receive a phone call from someone claiming to be with the IRS, and you owe tax or think you may owe tax, do not give out any information. Call the IRS back at 1.800.829.1040 to find out more information.
- Never open a link or attachment from an unknown or suspicious source. If you’re not sure about the authenticity of an email, don’t click on hyperlinks. A better bet is to go directly to the source’s main web page.
- Use strong passwords to protect online accounts and use a unique password for each account. Longer is better, and don’t hesitate to lie about important details on websites since crooks may know some of your personal details.
- Use two- or multi-factor authentication when possible. Two-factor authentication means that in addition to entering your username and password, you typically enter a security code sent to your mobile phone or other device.
If you believe you are a victim of an IRS impersonation scam, you should report it to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration at its IRS Impersonation Scam Reporting site and to the IRS by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “IRS Impersonation Scam.”
Keep your personal information safe by remaining alert – and when in doubt, assume it’s a scam. For tips on protecting yourself from identity theft-related tax fraud, click here.