A friend called me last week, freaking out about a telephone voice mail message she had received.
What had happened, she frantically wondered, in the few days since her arrangement with the IRS?
Nothing. It was a tax scam.
The crooked caller's timing was freaky given her recent legitimate interactions with the IRS, but it was still a scam. She confirmed that by calling the IRS herself to make sure.
Tax time in the tax fraud capital: This week, I've been in tax fraud central, known by most folks as Florida.
Amy Stanton, director at the IRS for privacy and information protection, led a session on identity theft and tax fraud at the agency's Nationwide Tax Forum in Orlando.
Florida has more per capita identity theft than anywhere else in the country, said Stanton. If you head about 80 miles southwestward, she added, you'll end up in Tampa, the epicenter of U.S. tax fraud.
While Florida is America's ID theft and tax fraud hot spot, there's still plenty of similar criminal action going on in the other 49 states, as evidenced by my friend's recent scam call.
Her experience came on the heels of an IRS announcement that this particular telephone identity theft con is the largest ever such scam and is growing.
So the IRS is ramping up its efforts to fight the scam. Today, the agency issued a consumer alert about the fake IRS agent calls, along with some tips on how to protect yourself from these and similar criminals.
Fake but threatening calls: First, here's a quick refresher so you'll know what to look out listen for.
These callers may demand money or may say you have a refund due and try to trick you into sharing private information.
These con artists use fake names and bogus IRS identification badge numbers. They also tend to alter the caller ID to make it look like it really is the IRS is calling.
And they can sound convincing, often knowing a lot about their scam targets.
As my friend found out, if you don't answer, they leave an "urgent" message, demanding you call back as soon as you get it.
"These telephone scams are being seen in every part of the country, and we urge people not to be deceived by these threatening phone calls," IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said in the alert statement. "We have formal processes in place for people with tax issues. The IRS respects taxpayer rights, and these angry, shake-down calls are not how we do business."
5 signs it's a phone tax scam: So that we all can be sure about what's a real tax call and what isn't, the IRS issued a list of five things that are tell-tale signs of a scam.
The IRS will never:
- Call you about taxes you owe without first mailing you an official notice.
- Demand that you pay taxes without giving you the opportunity to question or appeal the amount they say you owe.
- Require you to use a specific payment method for your taxes, such as a prepaid debit card.
- Ask for credit or debit card numbers over the phone.
- Threaten to bring in local police or other law-enforcement groups to have you arrested for not paying.
Any one of these instances is a sure sign the caller is a crook.
Remember, too, that the IRS does not use email, text messages or any social media to discuss taxpayer's personal tax issues.
Report the scam: If you get a phone call from someone claiming to be with the IRS and asking for money, here are three things you should do:
- If you know you owe taxes or think you might owe, call the IRS toll-free at (800) 829-1040. The IRS worker who answers can help you with a payment issue.
- If you know you don't owe taxes or have no reason to believe that you do, report the incident to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, either with via a toll-free call to (800) 366-4484 or at the tax watchdog's website at www.tigta.gov.
- If you've been targeted by this scam, also contact the Federal Trade Commission via the agency's FTC Complaint Assistant at www.FTC.gov. Be sure to note "IRS Telephone Scam" in the comments of your complaint.
Even though more and more people every day are more and more technologically savvy, crooks can use the power -- and fear -- of the IRS to wreak havoc using a century-plus old system.
But only if you fall for their scam. Don't.
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