How to Spot an IRS Email Scam

An unsolicited email from the IRS is a red flag

Young woman in black and white striped shirt stares suspiciously at a laptop screen.
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In 2020, IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig cautioned that tax scams rise during tax season and during crises. As expected, scam activity increased once the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) was passed earlier this year, and in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak. 

Scammers are using email and text messages to coax individuals into providing personal information, including bank account details, or Social Security numbers. If a second round of stimulus payments is approved, taxpayers should be aware of additional scams. Here’s how to protect yourself. 

Does the IRS Send Emails?

To avoid falling victim to a scam email, understand the IRS’s policies for taxpayer electronic communication. The IRS never initiates contact, or reaches out, on any matter using email, text messages, or social media without your prior consent. In other words, the IRS doesn’t send unsolicited emails. 

The IRS may use email with an individual after an IRS agent-individual relationship has been established, but you will always know to expect an email in advance. 

If you receive an email saying it’s from the IRS regarding anything that the IRS hasn’t previously contacted you about through the mail, you can be confident it isn’t authentic, and shouldn’t click on any links it contains. 

Common Features of Fake IRS Emails

Commonly, fake IRS emails may claim to be about a refund status or a tax payment due. They may ask for personal information, or links may lead to a request for personal information. 

The email may include links to passwords or account sign-ins. Do not click on any links, as they may lead to malicious files that could infect your computer with malware.

E-mail phishing schemes are using buzzwords such as "coronavirus," "COVID-19" and "Stimulus" in various ways to encourage recipients to click links or open emails, according to the IRS.

The IRS never asks anyone to email personal information, such as their:

  • Social Security number
  • Bank account number
  • Credit card number
  • PIN or password

The Latest IRS Email Scams

“Whether it’s a hurricane, an earthquake or stimulus, they just come out of the woodwork,” IRS spokesman Luis D. Garcia said of scammers, in a telephone interview with The Balance. “The basic M.O. is to impersonate the IRS or impersonate a charity and ask for a donation.” Here are some recent ways scammers have used email.

Economic Impact Payment-Related Requests

The IRS reports an increase in fraudulent activity involving theft of Economic Impact Payments (EIP) provided through the CARES Act and relief related to natural disasters. In these instances, criminals may provide false tax returns or other false information to the IRS to intercept refunds or payments.

The agency directs taxpayers to the Coronavirus Tax Relief page for more information or assistance in getting EIPs.

High-Pressure Scare Tactics

Scams–email and otherwise–frequently prey on vulnerable people such as foreign visitors, noncitizens, and the elderly, Garcia said. 

The scams might inform them of an unexpected refund. Or they may frighten the recipient with arrest, deportation, revoking their immigration status or driver’s license, or another negative consequence if they do not make an immediate payment.

Seniors may be overly trusting of emails, text messages, websites, and social media. According to the IRS, anecdotal evidence indicates that elder fraud by service providers decreases substantially when it is made obvious that a trusted friend or family member is taking an interest in the senior’s affairs.

“It can happen to the best of us. They know the pressure points, and they want to panic you into basically stopping your brain from functioning. The best way they can trigger that is with threats,” Garcia said. “The IRS will never threaten you with arrest, foreclosure, or other punishment.”

Ghost Professionals

Garcia warns that scammers don’t only operate online and anonymously. He says scammers have successfully created a pop-up business offering to help individuals prepare their taxes or recover a government stimulus payment. These scammers may file a false return or collect account numbers to access money—and then disappear. 

“Even if they have an office and look legitimate, you need to do your research and make sure you’re dealing with someone who is trustworthy,” said Garcia. “It’s the old saying, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”

If the service provider doesn’t sign the tax return they prepared, something may be amiss. By law, anyone who is paid to prepare or assists in preparing federal tax returns must sign any return they prepare and include their preparer tax identification number (PTIN). 

Gift Card Payment Requests 

Many scams ask an individual to use gift cards or non-cash currency to pay the IRS. Victims load up one or more gift cards with value, and provide the gift card numbers to the scammers. The scammers then sell the gift cards on a secondary market.

While the IRS accepts tax payments via electronic payment, via debit or credit card, or through payment plans and even using cash at participating retail partners, it doesn’t accept gift cards as payment for any tax debt, Garcia said. 

Charitable Giving Requests

Many U.S. residents’ lives were disrupted this year by hurricanes or other natural disasters, in addition to the pandemic. Scammers can take advantage of the generosity of those hoping to help victims through financial donations, the IRS warns. 

Some scammers used charitable-donation requests in combination with ransomware, which is often delivered through a corrupt link in an email or an attachment that users accidentally open. Ransomware is malicious and invasive software designed to infect an individual computer, a network, or a server. The ransomware is then used to track user keystrokes and other computer activity.

If used to lock up the functionality of a computer or entire network, criminals seek ransom (hence, the name) to remove the malware—often in currency such as Bitcoin that is not traceable. 

To help individuals identify legitimate tax-exempt charities, the IRS has created a list of bonafide nonprofit organizations.

How to Verify IRS Communication

If you’re asked to provide information to the IRS or to complete an IRS form, ensure its legitimacy by going to IRS.gov and searching for the same form, letter, or notice. Scammers frequently use forms that look similar to IRS forms, but may make small modifications. 

If you do not find the exact form, or if the instructions for responding are different in the notice that you received from what is listed on the IRS website, call an IRS telephone number for assistance.

What to Do if You Get a Fake Email

The IRS website provides instructions on how to respond. If you receive an email that you feel is not from the IRS, fight scams by forwarding the full and actual email to phishing@irs.gov. Don’t forward screen captures or other images, as the actual email contains valuable information for investigators.

If you receive an email that is not IRS-related that asks for personal information, you can forward it to reportphishing@antiphishing.org. If you receive an email that you feel contains malicious code or a malicious attachment and you have not clicked on it, you can forward it to your internet service provider’s abuse department and to spam@uce.gov. 

Key Takeaways

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency’s guide on recognizing and avoiding email scams include these key steps:

  • Never trust unsolicited email.
  • Turn on a spam filter in your email.
  • It’s safest not to open email attachments from unsolicited email senders.
  • Avoid clicking links in unsolicited emails.
  • Be sure to install antivirus software and keep it updated.

Article Sources

  1. Internal Revenue Service. "How to Know It’s Really the IRS Calling or Knocking on Your Door." Accessed Nov. 5, 2020.