I'm not a paranoid person. And the only conspiracy theories I've ever paid attention to were the for-entertainment-purposes-only ones promoted on television's The X-Files.
But I've got wonder if the tax crooks who are working nonstop to steal our identities and tax refunds also are colluding to troll the Internal Revenue Service.
Case in point, the latest tax scam alert from the IRS.
Today the tax agency issued a warning that crooks are again spoofing official tax entities, this time the Taxpayer Advocate Service, in phishing attempts to get individuals personal information.
This latest scheme — perhaps a reworking of an earlier scam that invoked the associated Taxpayer Advocacy Panel? — comes on the heels of the IRS' urging us to be extra careful to safeguard our personal information during filing season.
Not the Taxpayer Advocate: The Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) is real. It's an independent organization within the IRS. Its personnel work with taxpayers to resolve issues they're having with the IRS that are causing them financial distress.
Criminals are using this legitimate here-to-help office as a hook to convince their victims to trust them. They try to do that in these most recent scam calls by spoofing the phone numbers of TAS offices in Houston or Brooklyn.
As in other IRS impersonation scams, the thieves' unsolicited phone calls may be automated robo-calls that request the intended victims call a number left on the recipients' voice mails.
Once the taxpayer returns the call, the con artist in the guise of a TAS staffer requests personal information, including Social Security number or individual taxpayer identification number (ITIN).
Again, don't take this phishing bait.
While TAS' help can be a lifesaver for folks facing a costly IRS problem, you must call an Advocate's office for help. Then and only then, if the case does merit TAS involvement, would the office reach out to you.
Bottom line, as in most IRS matters, TAS does not initiate calls to taxpayers out of the blue.
Tax scam sticks and carrots: There are many variations of IRS impersonation phone scams.
With the pervasive fake IRS agent scam call, for example, fraudsters demand victims immediately pay a purported tax bill by a prepaid debit card or wire transfer. The callers are often hostile and abusive.
Alternately, scammers try offering victims a present rather than punishment.
Here, the crooks typically tell would-be victims that they are entitled to a large refund but must first provide personal information.
IRS impersonator similarities: All these IRS impersonation schemes, however, tend to use the same tactics to convince scam targets to reveal private info.
Tax scam call characteristics include:
- Scammers use fake names and IRS badge numbers to identify themselves.
- Scammers may know the last four digits of the taxpayer’s Social Security number.
- Scammers spoof caller ID to make the phone number appear as if the IRS or another local law enforcement agency is calling.
- Scammers may send bogus IRS emails to victims to support their bogus calls.
- Victims hear background noise of other calls to mimic a call site.
- After threatening victims with jail time or with, driver’s license or other professional license revocation, scammers hang up. Others con artists soon call back pretending to be from local law enforcement agencies or the Department of Motor Vehicles, again with spoofed caller ID supporting their claim.
Appropriate scam call reactions: If you get one of these calls or follow-up emails, don't panic.
Do, however, take the appropriate steps for your personal situation.
If you know you don't owe any taxes, you basically want to ignore the call and end it as soon as possible.
- Don't engage with the caller. When you spend time talking to the crook, he/she will think they are starting to reel you in and will continue to call. The best move is to hang up the minute you realize what's happening.
- Don't tell the crooked caller anything about yourself or your taxes.
- Definitely do not send any payment in any form.
If know you do owe taxes or think you might have an outstanding IRS bill, follow steps 1 through 3 above, then:
- Call the IRS yourself, directly and toll-free at (800) 829-1040. Real IRS workers who answer the phone can help you determine what you owe and how best to go about settling your tax debt.
Note, however, that at this time of year, it could take a while to get through via phone. That's why you might want to go to step 2.
- Review your tax account online. At this IRS.gov page, you can check your past 24 months of payment history, payoff amount and balance of each tax year owed.
- Call a tax professional who's experienced in dealing with delinquent tax situations.
And everyone who gets a phishing phone call or email, regardless of whether you do or don't owe taxes, should:
- Report the criminal contact to the IRS by sending a message to email@example.com. Put "IRS Phone Scam" in the subject line. If you get a follow-up phishing email, also forward that message before you delete it.
- Contact the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) to report the call and/or email. Use TIGTA's IRS Impersonation Scam Reporting online page or, if you prefer to report by phone, call toll-free (800) 366-4484.
- Alert the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), using the FTC Complaint Assistant on FTC.gov. Add "IRS Telephone Scam" in the notes.
Yeah, in addition to these calls being supremely irritating, the follow-up reporting is a bit time consuming.
But every report of an IRS impersonator or other tax scam means the good guys have a better chance of catching these conspiring crooks.
Your help, to borrow a phrase from Fox Mulder, in getting the tax scam truth out there in this fight is appreciated.
You also might find these items of interest:
- Online and tax security tips
- 5 signs that 'IRS' caller is a crook
- Fear you might be a tax ID theft victim? Here's what to do