How to Avoid Getting Tricked by IRS Scam Calls
In 2020, all signs are pointing to this year being the biggest year ever for the ever-popular IRS phone scam.
Why? Partially because it’s worked well for the scammers, but also partially because this is the first year ever that the IRS has subcontracted some of their debt collection activities to private debt collection companies (for details on that, scroll to the very bottom of this post).
Haven’t experienced the IRS phone scam yet for yourself? How it works is that you get a phone call from a random phone number (often with a Washington D.C. area code), from a person who claims to be with the IRS, and who says that you owe money on IRS back taxes that haven’t been paid.
Sometimes these scammers will even threaten you with potential jail time, major fees, fines or penalties for failing to comply. And they almost always want you to pay them right now, over the phone, via prepaid credit cards, or using wire transfers (which sounds weird, right?).
Why Are IRS Phone Scams So Popular?
IRS scam artists are more popular than ever before, mostly because the scams have worked so well in recent years.
But just how common is the IRS call scam?
The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration recently reported that they’ve received 896,000 complaints since October 2013, and that over 5,000 people had fallen victim to the scam, paying out a combined total of about $26,500,000.
No wonder IRS scam calls have been growing in popularity; any time there’s this much money at stake, shady people are bound to jump on the bandwagon and try to grab their slice of the pie. It’s unfortunate, but it’s also human nature.
And while I typically focus on offering free advice and help with IRS tax problems (real ones), this page has a different focus; I’ve put this content together to help you identify and avoid IRS call scammers.
If you’re sure you do have IRS tax problems, and are looking for help with filling and paying IRS back taxes, finding a resolution for your Federal tax debt, applying for IRS tax debt forgiveness, or using the IRS Fresh Start Program, then check out the other pages of my site.
If you’re not sure that you owe the IRS back taxes, but you’ve been contacted by someone claiming to be from the IRS, or working on their behalf and demanding that you pay, then this post is for you.
Will The Legitimate IRS Ever Call Me?
No, they will not.
At least, not out of the blue, and not as a first contact. The IRS will only call you if they’ve already tried to reach you via traditional mail, and failed to get in touch with you.
This is the first question you should ask yourself when someone calls and claims to be from the IRS, or working with the IRS to collect back tax debt, and it’s the fastest way to identify that you’ve been targeted by an IRS phone scam artist.
Simply put, the Internal Revenue Service will NEVER make their first contact with you over the phone. The first time they communicate with you about anything, whether that’s to get additional information for a tax return, attempt to notify you that you owe back taxes, or anything else, will be via snail mail.
The IRS has rules they must follow when reaching out to taxpayers, and part of their process is that the initial contact must be done in writing, over the mail. You won’t get an email. You won’t get a phone call. You won’t get a text message. The IRS’s first attempt to contact you will ALWAYS be via a written letter that arrives in your mailbox.
If you get a phone call out of the blue from someone claiming to be with the IRS, you can rest assured that you’re dealing with a scammer. No matter what they say, your best option is to simply hang up the phone, then write down the number you received the call from, and report it via the IRS scam reporting website.
What Are Some Popular IRS Scam Phone Numbers?
One thing that people definitely seem interested in is finding a list of all the known IRS scam phone numbers, but unfortunately, there is no such list.
According to Google, nearly 4,000 people search “IRS scam phone numbers” each month, and about 3,000 people search for “irs scam numbers” as well, which means that tens of thousands (or even hundreds of thousands) of these IRS scam calls must still be getting placed each and every month.
Is there any reason to believe that the numbers will decrease this year? If you ask me, this year is likely to see even further growth in the scam, especially since more and more people seem to be getting desperate in their attempts to collect money, but also because the IRS actually has outsourced a few of their collection activities to private lenders… for the first time ever.
I’ll go through how to detect a legitimate debt collection call from one of these private lenders at the bottom of this post, but for now, you should think of most IRS scam calls like the new version of the old Nigerian Prince email scams that have been going around for years.
And while it’d be nice to be able to Google search the phone number who called you claiming to be from the IRS and find it on a list of reported scam phone numbers, that’s simply not possible at this point, because scammers have improved their technology to the point that they can rotate their numbers, using new phone numbers for each and every scam call they place.
The best resource I could find for looking up IRS scam numbers is 800-notes.com, which is a website that allows you to search for any phone number, and view comments other people have left about the caller.
It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s definitely better than nothing. Also, if you do receive a call from one of these IRS scammers, I would recommend that you do report that number to 800notes because you may be able to help prevent someone else from becoming a victim of the scam.
Advice From The IRS Itself
The IRS is well-aware of these scam artists, and fortunately, they do take quick action to deal with them after they’ve been notified of the activity.
In addition to actively pursuing and prosecuting these scam artists, the IRS has also created a list of things to watch out for when attempting to determine whether you’re being contacted by an actual member of the Internal Revenue Service, or another scammer attempting to impersonate them.
Here are some tips the IRS has published for detecting tax collection scam calls:
- 5 Things To Think About When Detecting IRS Scam Calls
- IRS Scam Calls Are Abundant – Scams Have Cost Americans Over $26,500,000. Fake IRS phone calls are not an unusual scam. If you haven’t been personally targeted by one, then you may even be in the minority of people, as millions of fake IRS phone calls are placed each year in an attempt to collect money from unsuspecting Americans who don’t actually owe anything.
- Scammers Place Unsolicited Calls – IRS Scammers make unsolicited calls (meaning they’ve never been in contact with you before they call), in an attempt to scare you into sending them money. If you’ve never received a letter from the IRS, but you get a phone call from someone claiming to work for them, you’ll know for certain that you’re dealing with a scammer.
- Scammers Will Threaten You To Generate Fear – Like other criminals, IRS tax scammers don’t feel bad about using intimidation to get what they want. They may threaten to put you in prison, deport you, close down your business, or add to your debt with additional fees, penalties or fines. Don’t fall for their threats, as they have no actual power to do any of these things.
- Scammers May Offer “Settlement” Options – Some scammers have gotten smarter, realizing that more flies are caught with honey than vinegar, and are now attempting to play the “nice guy” route, offering to settle your IRS tax debt for less than the amount they claim you owe, as long as you’re willing to pay right now.
- Scammers Use Caller ID Spoofing – As I mentioned above, IRS call scammers have taken to hiding their phone numbers to prevent being identified as scam artists, and will often use caller ID spoofing to make it look like they’re calling from the actual IRS. Just because you receive phone call from a number that Google says is the IRS, doesn’t mean it’s the actual IRS calling!
- Scammers Keep Trying New Methods – No one ever claimed that these scammers aren’t innovators, as they’re likely to try new tricks each tax season. We’re expecting to see all sorts of new techniques, so don’t simply rely on reports from previous years when attempting to identify IRS phone call scams this year.
- Scammers May Seem Legitimate – The person who calls you may claim to have an IRS badge ID number, an official IRS email, or some other seemingly legitimate connection to the Internal Revenue Service (like official looking letterhead on emailed documents), but you’ll need to see through their ruse, and identify that you’re not dealing with the actual IRS.
If you receive a call and you’re not sure whether or not the person on the other end of the line actually works for the IRS, then the best thing you can do is request that they send you official written notification and documentation of the money you owe, telling them that you’ll need this as proof before you’re willing to pay up.
When you receive whatever is sent via the mail, simply take it to your local police station and ask them to verify that it’s real. (Remember, your taxes pay to keep the police department running, so this is a service they should be able to help you with, without giving you any attitude.)
For a faster alternative method of checking on the legitimacy of an IRS phone call, take down the information of the person who contacted you, then hang up, and call the actual IRS to verify that all the details you were told are accurate.
Tell them you’d like to speak with someone in collections, explain what just happened, and they’ll be able to direct you to whoever you need to speak with to check the authenticity of the claims.
Your best bet to getting a quick response from the IRS is to call their IRS Scam Reporting hotline, at 1-800-366-4484. They will be able to verify that the people who contacted you are really from the IRS, or an impersonator attempting to scam you out of your money.
Signs You’re Dealing With IRS Scammers
One thing that the IRS has done in response to these popular scams is to publish an extremely helpful list of all the things that they simply will not do.
If the person who contacted you (and who claims to be with the IRS), does any of the things on the list below, then you can be sure they’re not an official representative of the Internal Revenue Service, and that there’s a high chance they may be a scam artist trying to steal your money.
- The IRS will NEVER call you to demand an immediate payment. Even if you DO owe back taxes, the IRS will first send you a bill in the mail.
- The IRS will NEVER demand that you pay taxes without allowing you to ask for, and receive, a full accounting of the tax bill.
- The IRS will NEVER require you to pay back taxes without allowing you to attempt to appeal the amount owed.
- The IRS will NEVER force you pay your taxes in some weird or specific way, like by using a prepaid debit card, or a wire transfer. Scammers like these methods because they ensure the scammers won’t lose the money they’ve gotten from you, even if they’re later identified as con artists.
- The IRS will NEVER ask for any credit card or debit card numbers over the phone. As soon as you’re asked for this information, you can be sure that you’re speaking to a scammer.
- The IRS will NEVER threaten to imprison you, or use the Police or any other Government Agency to arrest, deport, or in any other way persecute you for failure to pay back taxes.
As soon as the person you’re speaking to does any of the things listed above, you can be quite certain that you’re not talking with an official representative of the IRS, and that it’s time to report that number as being part of an IRS scam operation.
What Should I Do If I Receive An IRS Scam Call?
If you’re sure that you don’t owe any taxes, then follow these three simple steps:
First, do not give out any personal information. Don’t give your Social Security number, don’t confirm your birthdate, do not provide your full legal name, permanent address, or any other details that may be used to steal your identity.
Second, get in touch with the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration immediately, and report this suspicious behavior. You can either use their Online Scam Reporting Form, or call them at 1-800-366-4484.
Third, report the same suspicious activity to the Federal Trade Commission, as this agency will attempt to pursue the scammers and take them down. Do this by using their Online Complaint Assistant Form.
If you’re sure that you do owe taxes, or if you aren’t sure whether or not you owe anything to the IRS, but you think that you might:
First, call the real IRS at 1-800-829-1040 and ask for assistance in determining whether or not you owe back taxes.
When the IRS answers the phone, explain what’s happened to you, find out if it sounds legitimate or not, then work with them to determine what you need to do next.
Who Do IRS Scam Artists Target?
Unfortunately, scam artists aren’t stupid, and they do a good job of picking their targets, primarily preying on old people, recent immigrants, and people who don’t speak English very well.
However, they also target college-aged kids, working moms, and even people who make so little money that they’ve never had to pay any taxes at all.
I myself was targeted by IRS phone scammers before I’d even graduated from college, with phone calls placed to my home, and messages left with my Mom stating that I had a serious situation I needed to resolve in order to avoid jail time.
I came home one weekend to the message that the IRS called for me, that it was an extremely serious matter, and that I needed to get in touch with them right away to prevent future legal actions (including penalties, fines, and imprisonment!).
I was freaked out, scared, wondering what the heck was going on, and basically borderline panicking… I didn’t have any money, how would I be able to come up with hundreds or thousands of dollars for the IRS?
My mom was completely freaked out too, she had never experienced anything like this and of course began bombarding me with questions about all sorts of potential illegal activities that I could have been up to, trying to determine why the IRS would be coming after me.
But when I dialed the number left in the message, can you guess who answered?
That’s right… a scammer.
I hung up immediately, reported his number to both the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, and the FTC, and went on my life.
One Thing Is Different
For the first time ever, in 2017, the IRS has contracted with four private debt collection agencies to allow them to start collecting back taxes from people the IRS hasn’t been able to locate.
This is literally the first time they’ve ever agreed to outsource ANY of their collections activity, and it’s important that everyone is aware of it because it’s going to lead to tons of confusion.
It’s also an extremely important point for anyone who actually DOES owe back taxes, since there’s a chance that you could hear from one of these companies, and you’ll need to be able to determine that they are NOT scammers attempting to steal your money.
The key thing to keep in mind with these calls is that they’ll only happen under a limited set of circumstances (not everyone who owes the IRS will be called by one of these new private subcontractors), and that they’ll only come from a select set of companies.
Which Private Debt Collectors Are Working With the IRS?
There are only four private collection agencies authorized to contact taxpayers on behalf of the IRS, and their names are:
- CBE Group
If you’re contacted by anyone other than the four collection agencies named above, then you’re being pursued by a scammer.
Do not provide any personal information to the scammer; hang up the phone, and immediately report their phone number to both the TIGTA and the FTC.
When Will Private Debt Collectors Get Involved?
The legitimate private debt collection agencies will only attempt to collect IRS back taxes in specific cases, basically, where the IRS has already tried, but failed, to collect the money that they want.
In fact, the only way you’ll be eligible for receiving a call from one of the four private IRS debt collection agencies listed above is if your IRS tax debt satisfies all three of the following conditions:
- Your back tax debt was already attempted to be collected by the IRS, but they failed to do so because they either don’t have the resources to keep coming after you, or they simply haven’t been able to find you. Basically, you’ll only hear from one of the four new agencies if you’re a tax debt deadbeat who’s been avoiding paying back taxes for quite some time.
- Speaking of which, you’ll only ever hear from one of these four private tax debt collection agencies if your debt has sat for at least 1/3 of the limitation period that the IRS has to collect the debt from you, without anyone from the IRS attempting to come after you. Since they get 10 years to collect your tax debt, that means that at least 3 years have to have elapsed, without any IRS employee getting around to contacting you.
- And finally, your back taxes debt has to have entered the official collections stage, meaning that the IRS does want to come after you to collect, but it’s been over a year since they’ve had any interaction with you. If you’ve received the IRS letter notifying you that it’s time to pay up, but you’ve simply been ignoring them for over a year, then you may hear from one of the private collection agencies.
Basically, very few people are going to be receiving letters and phone calls from these new private tax debt collection agencies, so you should probably just assume that anyone who calls you asking for IRS money is a scammer, and treat the situation extremely carefully.
The IRS has really only outsourced their most difficult collection activities to these new private firms, who are acting kind of like bounty hunters to track down tax deadbeats – people who have refused to get back in touch with the IRS and resolve their long-standing tax problems.
To summarize, anyone who calls claiming that you owe the IRS money, and that you need to pay up now is probably a scammer.
This only doesn’t apply if you’ve been skirting collection activities for some time, and completely avoided working on any sort of IRS Tax Debt Settlement for at least a year after having been notified that you owe back taxes.
Even if your IRS tax debt satisfies the conditions listed above, you may still not have your debt outsourced to the private collection agencies, because there are a set of additional circumstances that that the IRS will refuse to outsource collection activities for, including:
- Tax accounts associated with minors (anyone under the age of 18)
- Tax accounts for taxpayers in designated combat zones
- Tax accounts owned by victims of tax-related identity theft
- Tax accounts that already have IRS Installment Agreements in place
- Tax accounts that are owned by people using the Innocent Spouse defense
- Tax accounts owned by people in a Presidential-declared disaster area who have asked for relief from IRS collection activities
Once again, my reading on this change is that the IRS is only outsourcing collection activities for debtors that have refused to work with them to resolve their Federal tax debt, and allowing these private collection agencies to come in and do the hard work that the IRS simply doesn’t have the manpower to accomplish (chasing people down and hounding them for their back taxes).
What Rules Do the Private Collection Agencies Have to Follow?
Just like any other debt collector, Conserve, Pioneer, Performant and CBE Group will all have to abide by the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, which regulates debt collection activities and preserves right for consumers.
Per the rules of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, these collectors cannot do things like call after 9pm, or before 8am. They also can’t call you at work (after you’ve told them that they’re not allowed to), they can’t tell anyone that you’ve committed a crime (if you haven’t), they can’t lie about how much you owe, and they can’t make any physical or other threats to you, including threatening to imprison you for failing to pay back your IRS tax debt.
As soon as anyone who calls does any of the things listed above, you should start treating them like a tax scammer, and consider hanging up the phone and reporting their information to the proper authorities.
How Can I Tell Legitimate Tax Collection From Scams?
The biggest thing to remember is that you’ll only ever be contacted by anyone – the IRS or otherwise – and told that you need to pay back taxes AFTER you’ve been contacted via traditional mail first.
If you’ve never received a letter from the IRS, like their infamous 90-day letter (IRS FOrm CP3219N), then any phone calls you receive regarding IRS back tax debt are likely coming from scammers.
Also, legitimate IRS representatives would never demand that you make any sort of payment over the phone, or that you provide any kind of credit card, debit card, or bank account information at all.
And finally, anyone who makes any sort of threats to you, about imprisoning you, adding to the fees and fines with outlandish, extreme penalties, etc., is likely to be a scammer as well.
Even if you do get contacted by one of the private debt collectors working on behalf of the IRS, they will not ask you to pay them any money, but will instead simply direct you to IRS.gov/Pay to deal with your back taxes on your own.
This Year Is Sure to Be Confusing – Don’t Get Tricked!
Tax collection scams have been around for millennia – the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans all faced similar scams to what we’re experiencing today – so don’t feel like there’s anything new going on here, or that it’ll simply all go away because of some new rules or regulations.
To prevent yourself from falling prey to one of these IRS telephone scams, you’ll need to keep your wits about you, remember that the IRS is never going to ask for payment over the phone, and verify that the people you’re talking to are legitimate IRS employees, or private debt collectors working on their behalf.
Remember, you can always ask them to simply mail you anything they want to tell you over the phone, and that you can Google whatever they’re saying to look for scam reports and reviews from other people who’ve been approached the same way.
The biggest weakness to the IRS scammers is that they typically approach everyone in similar fashion, using a similar process, making similar threats, and attempting to trick you in the same way that’s worked against other people.
If you’re really struggling to determine whether or not someone is a legitimate IRS employee or subcontractor, demand they send you their requests for repayment in writing and take them to your local police station to ask for them to verify that they are the real deal.
Where Can I Go For Other Questions?
If you’re seeking information about IRS Debt Relief, you’ve come to the right spot, because my site offers comprehensive Guides to each of the IRS’s most popular debt relief programs.
Some of the most important pages that you should review include my Guide to IRS Penalties, my Guide to Paying IRS Back Taxes, my Guide to IRS Tax Debt Forgiveness, my Guide to IRS Tax Settlements, my Guide to IRS Tax Resolution Agencies, my Guide to Avoiding IRS Collections, and my Guide to the IRS Fresh Start Program.
Make sure to also familiarize yourself with the IRS’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which explains what the IRS and their hired private debt collection agencies can legally do to get you to pay them back.
And finally, if you have any other questions about taxes or IRS-related problems, feel free to post them in the Comments section below and I’ll get you a response as quickly as possible.
Disclaimer: Information obtained from Forget Tax Debt is for educational purposes only. You should consult a licensed financial professional before making any financial decisions. This site receives some compensation through affiliate relationships. This site is not endorsed or affiliated with the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the IRS or any other Government Organization.