What to Do If You Get a Call From the IRS—Is It a Scam?

The IRS won't call you out of the blue

Woman on the phone at home

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Maybe the letters "IRS" turn up on your caller ID, or you pick up the phone blindly and the voice on the other end of the line says it's Joe Smith calling from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Try not to panic. There's a very strong chance the call isn't legitimate.

The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) reports that almost 14,700 taxpayers fell victim to IRS phone scams between 2013 and 2019, paying out in excess of $72 million to fraudsters. 

Your first line of defense should be understanding how these scams work so you can identify one when it happens. And you have to know what to do if it happens to you. The most common time for scams is during and right after tax filing season, but they can occur all year.

Your First Clue the IRS Call Is a Scam

Ask yourself one very important question before you answer the call. Have you received any written communications from the IRS via the U.S. Postal Service in recent months? If the answer is no, the call you're receiving is likely a scam—the IRS usually initiates contact through mail.

The IRS will never initiate contact through emails, text messages, or social media. The IRS may potentially initiate contact through a phone call, but they will never ask for immediate payment through a phone call.

Of course, it's possible that your mail hasn't caught up with you yet, especially if you've recently moved. In any case, it's best to ignore an initial phone call—even if you have reason to believe it could be legitimate. Instead, you can call the IRS directly to find out if there's a problem.

How the IRS Call Scam Works

There's usually more than one type of scam going around, but some are more widely used than others and most share some common themes.

One approach is that the caller will claim to be from the IRS and tell you that you owe taxes and that you must pay using a prepaid debit card, gift card, or by wire transfer. When you think about this for a moment, it becomes clear that any request along these lines is a scam. The IRS offers a bona fide website called Direct Pay where you can just sign on, prove your identity by offering some information, and submit an electronic check.

Why in the world would the IRS accept tax revenue through a prepaid debit card? The requested method of payment can be a clue that the caller is not on the up-and-up and you're being scammed.

If you did receive a letter or notice because you legitimately owe a tax debt, that letter should explain all your options for paying by check or for setting up an installment agreement. IRS agents do not take credit card or debit card numbers over the phone. You will not receive an email concerning Direct Pay unless you initiate the contact.

Variations on the Theme 

Scammers often threaten those who refuse to pay with arrest, deportation, or loss of their businesses, homes, or driver's license. In reality, the IRS just doesn't operate this way—at least not without due process. You'll receive lots and lots of written communications from the IRS first telling you that you're in trouble or that you must appear in tax court.

If you do owe taxes and have ignored numerous previous notices from the IRS, it's entirely possible that the federal government can and will place a tax levy against your wages, bank account, or tangible property. What the IRS won't do is send someone to your door with handcuffs, unless yours is a particularly egregious tax situation and all other efforts have failed—and even in this extreme situation, you'll never face arrest simply because you owe money. As far as the IRS is concerned, prison is reserved for issues of tax fraud, failing to file numerous returns, and otherwise knowingly cheating the government out of tax revenue.

IRS Call Scammers Can Be Wiley

Even knowing all this, you might have doubts because these scammers are pretty good at their games. They do their homework before calling you so they appear to be legitimate on several levels. They may offer an IRS "badge number" (although it won't be real). The scammer might know the last four digits of your Social Security number, but in most cases, they won't be able to give the first five numbers.

And yes, scammers can arrange for your caller ID to tell you that the IRS is calling. You might receive emails first—but again, the IRS almost always contacts taxpayers initially by U.S. mail, never by email, so this is another clue that you're being scammed.

The IRS has reported a scam in which caller IDs report that the caller is from the Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS). The TAS is real and has genuinely helped multitudes of taxpayers, but it won't call you out of the blue, either.

If you're a tough sell and make it clear that you know you're being scammed, you might next receive a call from your local police department or your state's Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), telling you the IRS has notified them you owe taxes and you must pay up now. Some scammers will even take this approach from the start. As with any questionable calls from the IRS, you should hang up and call your police department or DMV. If it's a legitimate issue, they'll be able to help you resolve it. What's more likely is that they'll have no idea what you're talking about—meaning the call was indeed a scam.

How to Protect Yourself 

The TIGTA provides the following tips for how to deal with this type of telephone scam:

  • If you owe federal taxes or you think you might owe taxes, hang up and call the IRS at 800-829-1040. IRS workers can help you with your payment questions. Do not give the caller any personal information.
  • If you're sure you don't owe taxes, call and report the incident to TIGTA at 800-366-4484.
  • You can also visit the TIGTA website and report the incident using the "IRS Impersonation Scam Reporting" option.
  • You can file a complaint on the Federal Trade Commission's website. Add "IRS Telephone Scam" to the comments in your complaint.

Exercise vigilance. Contact the IRS, or ask your tax professional to contact the IRS for you, but do not deal with someone calling you out of the blue demanding money.