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IRS imposters use many tactics to target potential victims. Here are some tips to help recognize and avoid common scams.
Consumers beware: From bogus phone calls to phishing emails, IRS imposter scams are on the rise.

How to detect IRS imposter scams

IRS imposters use many tactics to target potential victims. Here are some tips to help recognize and avoid common scams.

March 10, 2017

Domita White received a perplexing call several years ago from someone claiming to work for the Internal Revenue Service. The caller claimed White and her husband owed nearly $1,000 in unpaid taxes, and threatened that their credit would be ruined if the couple didn’t pay immediately.

Though the phone call was troubling, it wasn’t unusual for the Whites to hear from a government official. White’s husband, a defense industry professional, was undergoing a background check related to a job promotion, and had received many calls in the process.

The Whites mailed a check and waited for confirmation of the receipt of their payment. When the check cleared but no receipt arrived, they called the IRS directly.

“Fortunately, we found out we had paid all our taxes and our credit was okay, so we were greatly relieved,” said White, a Wells Fargo sales specialist. “The bad part was we fell for a scam.”

Imposter scams – such as the one the Whites experienced – peak this time of year in conjunction with tax filing season. From phone calls and phishing emails to bogus social media posts, perpetrators wield an arsenal of fraudulent strategies to target potential victims, often using intimidation, threats, and other scare tactics.

According to the IRS Consumer Alert, thousands of people have lost millions of dollars and their personal information to tax scams. During the 2016 tax season, the IRS saw about a 400 percent surge in phishing and malware incidents.

IRS imposters use many tactics to target potential victims. Here are some tips to help recognize and avoid common scams.

Some email phishing scams appear to be from the IRS and include links to fake websites intended to mirror the official IRS site, the agency says. The sites ask for Social Security numbers and other personal information, which could be used to file false tax returns. They also may carry malware, which can infect people's computers and allow criminals to access your files or track your keystrokes to gain information.

The IRS warns consumers that it does not initiate contact with taxpayers by email, text messages, or social media channels to request personal or financial information. It also does not threaten taxpayers with lawsuits, imprisonment, or other enforcement action.

Also know that the IRS will not:

  • Demand payment using a gift card, pre-paid debit card, or wire transfer.
  • Threaten to immediately have you arrested or deported for not paying.
  • Ask for credit or debit card numbers by phone, email, or text.

To help protect yourself, never provide information to someone who calls or emails you first, the agency says. Instead, contact the IRS directly to confirm the validity of the request. If you think it could be a scam, call the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration at 800-366-4484.

Educating and raising awareness

Wells Fargo also sees a spike in scam reports during tax season. The company provides educational resources through its Fraud Information Center, including an article about IRS imposter scams, describing the most common ones and how to avoid them.

“As we enter tax filing season, it's vital for our team members and customers to be aware of IRS imposter scams,” said Adam Vancini, channel operations executive for Wells Fargo Virtual Channels. “Because these and other threats are ever-changing, review our Fraud Information Center on a regular basis to stay informed about the latest scams.”

Even when customers try to hang up on them, IRS imposters can be aggressive and intimidating, especially with older customers, said Sunday Gatluak, Wells Fargo financial crimes specialist in Salt Lake City. She described one case involving a woman who called in a near panic to report a likely phone scam.

“The main priority was to help her calm down,” Gatluak said. “She was pretty shaken since it had just happened. She hung up and called us immediately. I let her know she would be okay since she didn’t give out any personal information to the scammer. He had claimed to have her account information already and threatened to ‘drain’ her account, but none of that was true.”

If you have been targeted by a scam and are concerned that your Wells Fargo bank account information may have been compromised, call 1-800-869-3557.

White said that as victims of an IRS imposter scam, she and her husband are now more cautious about giving out their personal information.

“We wanted to share our experience to help others,” she said. “We knew you had to be careful about how much information you give over the phone. That was the first time we have ever given out information like that. We’re more diligent now; a lot more diligent.”