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Scammers impersonate IRS agents

How to protect yourself from impostors trying to steal your money

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You open a letter or email or receive a call claiming to be from the IRS. It says agents have been trying to reach you about an unpaid tax bill and a warrant is out for your arrest.

Tax scams can be simple: A scammer was convicted in 2024 in a Pennsylvania court for leaving a message claiming victims owed taxes, along with a U.S. phone number to call. Victims who called were routed to call centers in India where scammers told them to settle their debt with gift cards or other money transfer methods.

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Or criminals may weave an elaborate tale: Recent convictions include a case in Arizona where victims were told they won the lottery. Victims were then sent a fake IRS letter threatening to seize their assets if they did not pay taxes immediately. In Florida, a criminal impersonated various government agencies, including the IRS, and convinced victims they were suspects in money laundering or drug trafficking schemes. Victims were told that unless they paid immediately, they faced arrest and financial ruin.

Impostor scams — including romance scams — were the most common type reported in 2023, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). People lost more than $394 million to government impersonation scams in 2023, an uptick of 63 percent from 2022, according to the FBI.

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Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
  • Get Watchdog Alerts for tips on avoiding such scams.

Common IRS impostor scams

“Scammers prey on uncertainty and confusion, so (stay) current on scams that are out there,” urges Terri Steenblock, who works on fraud protection and awareness at the Federation of Tax Administrators, an association for state tax officials.

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Be aware of common tactics used by criminals who pose as tax collectors.

  1. You owe the IRS money. A caller claiming to be from the IRS contacts you about purported unpaid taxes. You are told you will be arrested or taken to court unless you pay immediately. To add pressure on victims, there may be an additional call, this one from the “sheriff” or “police” threatening imminent arrest.
  2. You have an unclaimed refund. Official-looking letters arrive, some via a delivery service, informing the recipient about an unclaimed refund. To collect the money, the recipient must send photos of a driver’s license and bank information.
  3. You are owed a tax rebate. But to get it, you must verify your identity by providing a Social Security number and other personal information.

How to know if it’s a scam

Here are five things that should tip you off that you’re not communicating with the real IRS:

  1. Contact by phone, email, text or social media. “This is not how the IRS contacts you,” says April Walker, lead manager for tax practice and ethics for the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. “They’re not going to send you a text and say, ‘Click on this link to pay your tax bill.’ ” The IRS initiates contact through the U.S. Postal Service, Walker says.
  2. An appearance at your door. Recently, the IRS changed its rules and stopped most unannounced in-person visits. “We have the tools we need to successfully collect revenue without adding stress with unannounced visits,” IRS Commissioner Danny Werfel said when announcing the policy, created in part to thwart scammers, in July 2023.
  3. Threats of arrest or court summons. Even if you’re scared, remember you have the right to challenge what the IRS says you owe and hire an enrolled agent or a lawyer to represent you, says Jennifer MacMillan, who serves on the board of the National Association of Enrolled Agents (NAEA), an organization of tax specialists licensed by the U.S. Treasury Department. Even if you do owe money, “they are not going to come arrest you (or) demand instant payment,” she says.
  4. Demands for immediate payment. Although the IRS is in the business of tax compliance, Walker says, it wants to work with you. “If you owe money, they offer installment plans and other solutions,” she says.
  5. Odd payment methods. The IRS does not ask for payment in gift cards, prepaid debit cards or cryptocurrency.

How to protect yourself 

  • Hang up immediately. A call might appear legitimate, but criminals can change caller ID so it looks like the call is coming from an actual IRS office. If you’re concerned that you owe money, call the IRS, Walker says. But look up the number yourself, don’t use a number you are given.

“You may be a long time on hold, but it’s the easiest way to resolve it,” MacMillan says. Alternatively, you can create an online account with the IRS to check what you may owe, or if you use an accountant, call them for help, MacMillan says.

  • Shut the door. If the IRS wants to see you in person, it will schedule an appointment though the mail, Walker says.
  • Avoid opening unsolicited emails. If you do open an email, be careful not to click on any links or attachments. Forward unsolicited emails in which someone claims to be from the IRS or the Treasury Department to
  • Pay carefully. Check the IRS site for options, instructions and verification that payments are being made to the real agency.
Video: How to Tell if You’re the Target of an IRS Scam

If you’ve been targeted

  • Report calls. If you received a scam IRS call, contact the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) immediately at 800-366-4484 or file a report online
  • Report stolen money. If you’ve had any monetary losses due to an IRS-related scam incident, report it to TIGTA, the FTC and the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center. If you bought gift cards, the FTC urges you to report the companies that issued the cards. Instructions for contacting companies, such as Amazon, can be found here.
  • Get help. The Department of Justice runs a National Elder Fraud Hotline: 833-FRAUD-11 (833-372-8311) Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET in English, Spanish and other languages. Hotline staff can help victims identify next steps and where to report, and they can connect callers with resources.

More resources

The IRS has a page with consumer scam alerts. It details how the agency contacts consumers.

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spinner image cartoon of a woman holding a megaphone

Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
  • Get Watchdog Alerts for tips on avoiding such scams.