If caller ID says ‘IRS’ it’s likely a scammer after your money

Imagine your caller ID indicates the Internal Revenue Service is on the line.

You think, “I better answer this call.” You are told that you owe a large tax bill and will need to immediately wire money to avoid serious consequences. You might protest, but then the caller threatens you with arrest, suspension of your driver’s license or, if you are an immigrant, deportation. The caller may also follow up, pretending to be from the local police or your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles. Again, caller ID will lead you to believe the phone call is legitimate.

But it is not. It’s a fraud. The caller is using a practice known as “caller ID spoofing.” The displayed telephone number or name has been falsified.

The IRS, which has seen an increase in this type of scam, would not request payment in such a manner nor threaten to send police to your home. Nor would the agency ask for your bank account or credit card information for a payment over the phone.

In addition to the caller ID trick, scammers might try these methods:

Fake names and titles, or use actual titles to make the call or email seem valid.

Read to you part of your Social Security number. Think about it. Lots of things we do officially include the last four digits of this number. I’ve often seen such paperwork casually tossed in a trash can or left lying around, easy pickings for someone up to no good.

Email you before or soon after making the fake call. If you do indeed owe money, the IRS will contact you first through the U.S. Postal Service.

Simulate a call center. You might hear background noise of other people talking.

In the days now leading up to the tax-filing deadline, law enforcement officials across the country are warning people about the phony tax scam. The police chief in Laurel, Md., sent out an alert to residents after receiving complaints.

A senior living in Santa Cruz County, Calif., got such a call. The caller said he was from the IRS Criminal Tax Fraud Unit, according to a consumer advisory from the Santa Cruz District Attorney’s Consumer Affairs Office. The man told the woman, identified only as Hazel, that she owed more than $6,800 in overdue taxes and if she refused to allow access to her bank account for payment, she would face fines of more than $16,700.

Thank goodness Hazel contacted her tax preparer before sending any money. Another woman, identified as Mary from Michigan, wasn’t so wise. Having already had some tax issues, she believed the caller when he said she owed the IRS $4,900 following a four-year audit of her returns, according to a local television report. The caller said a warrant for her arrest would be issued if she didn’t pay immediately.

“You think that the guys are going to show up at your front door with handcuffs and take you away,” the woman, hidden in shadows, tearfully told the news station.

The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, alarmed about the increasing number of people getting the phony calls, issued a warning last month. The agency said it has received reports of more than 20,000 contacts in the phony tax scam involving thousands of victims who have been cheated out of more than $1 million. The scam has hit taxpayers in nearly every state, the agency said.

So here’s what officials say you should do if you get a call from someone claiming to be from the IRS.

Hang up and call the IRS at 800-829-1040. Don’t call any number the person gives you.

You can help other potential victims by reporting the call to the Treasury’s inspector general at 800-366-4484. Also inform the Federal Trade Commission by filing a complaint at www.ftc.gov. In your complaint, be sure to indicate you’re reporting an IRS telephone scam.

Forward any suspect emails to phishing@irs.gov. Please don’t open any attachments or click on any links in the email. And be aware that some of the scams involve claims that you are entitled to a refund. I just got one such email.

Don’t believe the hype or scare tactics. Just go to the source — the IRS — to independently verify any call, email or text you receive about your tax situation.

Michelle Singletary: michelle.singletary@washpost.com.

Washington Post Writers Group

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