Tax identity thieves are quick studies.
They've been listening to the Internal Revenue Service warn us that the tax agency will not send e-mails or call us to discuss tax problems. Instead, notes the IRS, it always contacts taxpayers first via old-fashioned snail-mailed letters.
So that's what tax crooks now are doing, too.
Evolving tax scams: I first heard of this tactic last month at a seminar about tax identity theft during the IRS Nationwide Tax Forum in Denver. One of my fellow attendees mentioned that a client had received an official looking letter ostensibly from the IRS about a purported overdue tax bill.
Luckily for that taxpayer, he took the document to his tax professional instead of following the directions to send the money straight to the crook.
The IRS has confirmed that the tax scams have evolved.
For almost two years, crooks have been running the largest tax scam ever. Posing as IRS agents, they call taxpayers and threaten them with jail time if they don't quickly send the criminals pre-paid debit cards to cover the fake tax bills.
Now that folks are getting wise to that scheme, crooks are following real IRS protocol and mailing or faxing falsified forms.
"Taxpayers need to know that scammers have started sending fake documents to trick people into sending money or 'verifying' their personal information," said Luis D. Garcia, a spokesman with the IRS' Detroit office.
So add your traditional mail box to the list of locations to be on guard for when it comes to tax crooks.
Imitating real IRS correspondence: Tweaking official IRS material and documents is a long-standing technique used by tax scam artists and crooks.
The reason for the continuing, evolving criminal effort? It pays.
The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) has received reports of roughly 600,000 contacts since October 2013. TIGTA is also aware of nearly 4,000 victims who have collectively reported over $20 million in financial losses as a result of tax scams.
However, real letters from the IRS, even those about amounts the agency says you owe, do not demand that you send it or its agents payments via specific methods such as pre-debit cards. And initial written notices from the IRS also give you time to respond to or rebut the agency's request for additional tax payment.
"We continue to see these aggressive tax scams across the country," IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said. "Scam artists specialize in being deceptive and fooling people. The IRS urges taxpayers to be extra cautious and think twice before answering suspicious phone calls, emails or letters."
When it comes to official letters, the IRS has hundreds that criminals could imitate. Samples of the actual letters are not shown on the IRS website, but it does list the documents' official numerical designations.
The first listed letter is CP01, which just happens to be what the IRS sends taxpayers who are identity theft victims who have verified their identity to the IRS. This letter lets the taxpayer know that his or her account will be monitored to prevent future fraudulent activity.
Call if you have questions: If you do you receive correspondence, written or electronic, that looks suspicious and was designed to appear as though it came from the IRS, let the agency know by calling 1-800-829-1040.
If the letter is real, the IRS will let you know and provide guidance on the next, legitimate steps you need to take. And if it's fake, the IRS wants to know that, too, so it can track where this latest tax scam is spreading.
Updated Aug. 6, 2015, to include latest IRS comments.
You also might find these items of interest: