Fake Emails From the IRS are Scams—What to Do If You Receive One

What to Do and How to Do It If You Receive a Fake Email From the IRS

A metal padlock with the word "email" sits on top of a computer keyboard

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The Internal Revenue Service reported a very significant increase in IRS-related email schemes in 2018—approximately 60%. This increase came after suspicious activity declined for a few years from 2015 through 2017.

The IRS never contacts taxpayers via email, so if you've received an email claiming to be from the IRS, it's almost certainly a scam, especially if it comes out of the blue, and you've had no other contact with the IRS recently. You can delete the email and forget about it. Or, if you want to help fight crime, you can forward the email to the IRS so they can investigate its source or take some of these other actions suggested by the IRS.

How to Spot a Scam Email

The subject line will most likely be your first clue that the email is bogus. It will probably say some combination of the words "IRS," "Notice," and "Important."

If the email asks you for any of the following information, you can be sure it comes from someone who's phishing for your personal information for their gain:

  • A credit card number
  • A bank account number
  • A PIN
  • A password
  • Your Social Security number
  • Any other sensitive information

The goal is to use this information to hijack your identity. The scammer can use this information to take out credit in your name and undertake various other acts by assuming your identity. The IRS reports that the most common times of the year for email scams are in December—during the winter holidays. Perhaps because scammers believe the recipients will be distracted and less alert for tricks—and during and right after tax-filing season.

The IRS publishes a list of some email and other phishing schemes which it updated in March 2019.

Scammers aren't limited to email attempts to get your information. They sometimes make phone calls claiming to be IRS agents as well, and your caller ID might even indicate that the call is coming from the IRS...but in all likelihood, it's not.

How the IRS Typically Contacts People

The IRS never initiates contact with a taxpayer by email. The IRS will send you a snail-mail letter if it wants to get your attention. And if the IRS wants to get your attention, they'll send you a certified letter. According to the IRS website:

"The IRS doesn't initiate contact with taxpayers by email, text messages, or social media channels to request personal or financial information. This includes requests for PIN numbers, passwords or similar access information for credit cards, banks, or other financial accounts."

There you have it, right from the horse's mouth. The first contact from the IRS will be by letter. The IRS rarely calls, and it never emails.

The Tricks Used in Scam Emails

Email scams often trick you into thinking you have a missing refund or are under criminal investigation. They could refer to a non-existent tax form or ask for your credit card number.

Email scams might have spelling mistakes and show tax refunds for an amount that includes dollars and cents. This is a tell because tax refunds are for amounts in whole dollars.

Don't Click on Links or Open Attachments

The email probably contains links to websites or attachments. Do not click on these links. Do not open any attachments. They could contain malicious software or code designed to hijack your computer. Do not reply to the email!

Forward the Email to the IRS for Investigation

You can forward the email to the IRS. Investigators at the tax agency will use the information contained in the emails to track down the criminals.

Make sure your email software is displaying all the headers in the message. Many email programs show only the most important headers by default. Forward the scam email to phishing@irs.gov. The IRS offers some tips as to how best to do this.

The IRS says that it can "use the information, URLs, and links in the bogus emails to trace the hosting websites and alert authorities to help shut down these fraudulent sites."

The IRS will probably not acknowledge the receipt of your email, but that doesn't mean it didn't receive it. You can relax now. You've done your part. But if you have any concerns or questions about your taxes, contact the IRS directly:

  • Tax Refunds: 1-800-829-4477, or visit the IRS website.
  • Questions about Your Taxes: 1-800-829-1040, or visit a local IRS office

Delete the Email

Delete the email after you've forwarded it to the IRS. You might also want to run a scan of your computer using your antivirus or internet security program to make sure no damage has occurred simply from opening the email in the first place.