E-mails From the IRS -- and Other Signs of a Tax Scam

Identity thieves are getting more sophisticated at tricking taxpayers into revealing their personal information. Here are some scams you may encounter this tax season and ways to tell fact from fraud.

Question: I received an e-mail claiming to be from the IRS and asking for my bank account information to deposit my refund. I’m almost positive it’s a scam. How can I find out for sure, and how can I report it if it is fraudulent?

Answer: It’s a scam—and one that’s common around tax season. The IRS doesn’t initiate contact by phone or e-mail. If you ever want to double-check whether the IRS is contacting you, see How to Know It’s Really the IRS Calling or Knocking on Your Door.

Most people know to be suspicious of calls and e-mails claiming to be from the IRS and asking for your money or personal information. But the crooks are getting smarter and introducing a new level of tax-related schemes, which are especially prevalent this time of year as people begin to file their tax returns and await their refunds.

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And people are even more susceptible to scams this year because of confusion about the new tax law. In the most common tax scams, IRS impostors claim that you owe money and threaten lawsuits or arrest if you don’t pay immediately by credit card or by wiring the money or sending a prepaid debit card or gift card. They have even started to spoof caller IDs to make it look like the call is from Washington, D.C., the U.S. Treasury or your state or local department of revenue.

Be aware, if you owe money, you’ll receive a notice from the IRS in the mail first. And the agency does not demand that you pay taxes without a chance to question or appeal the amount it says you owe.

As you discovered, at this time of year scam artists are also sending e-mails that look like official IRS correspondence asking for your bank account information to directly deposit your refund. Some e-mails include a link to a website that looks legitimate but is just a way to gather your information and steal your money or identity. Con artists also send e-mails claiming to be from your tax software company or tax professional, asking for information related to your refund or confirming personal information. The e-mail may ask you to update your “IRS e-file information immediately” to prevent a delay of your refund. The IRS will not send an e-mail asking for personal or financial information.

You can report these phishing scams at phishing@irs.gov. If you think there’s a chance that the correspondence may be legitimate, don’t click on any links or respond. Instead, look up the phone number of your tax preparer or tax software company separately and call to check.

Also, in the past few years, there have been problems with ID thieves who get your Social Security number and other personal information and file a fraudulent tax return in your name so they can collect your refund. The IRS has beefed up security to help reduce these problems, but it’s still a good idea to file your return as soon as possible if you’re owed a refund, so you can beat the thieves to your money. See the IRS’s Taxpayer Guide to Identity Theft for more information.

For more information about scams targeting taxpayers—including a frequently updated list of common scams—see the IRS’s Tax Scams Consumer Alerts.

Kimberly Lankford
Contributing Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance

As the "Ask Kim" columnist for Kiplinger's Personal Finance, Lankford receives hundreds of personal finance questions from readers every month. She is the author of Rescue Your Financial Life (McGraw-Hill, 2003), The Insurance Maze: How You Can Save Money on Insurance -- and Still Get the Coverage You Need (Kaplan, 2006), Kiplinger's Ask Kim for Money Smart Solutions (Kaplan, 2007) and The Kiplinger/BBB Personal Finance Guide for Military Families. She is frequently featured as a financial expert on television and radio, including NBC's Today Show, CNN, CNBC and National Public Radio.