"This is George Miller with the IRS…"

It sure was nice of the IRS to warn taxpayers of a “pervasive telephone scam” last week.  The scam artists apparently target recent immigrants, threaten jail time, and run credit card payments over the phone.  The IRS described a number of things to look out for, presumably so we all can  independently determine if the call we received is from a scammer or from an actual IRS representative.  The only problem is sometimes the thieves and the IRS agents share some of the same characteristics.  Let me show you what I mean.

  • Scammers use phony names and IRS badge numbers: Great, but how would we know if the name or badge number is fake?!  The IRS says that they often use common names.  But I know there are plenty of real IRS reps who have common names.  Plus, recent immigrants may not be fully aware what is or is not a common American name.  It might have been helpful if the IRS had given a sample ID number so that taxpayers could at least know if it was the correct number of digits.  Many of the representatives I speak with use 7-digit ID numbers (assuming I have been talking with the IRS for the past 8 years and not phone scammers).
  • Scammers may be able to recite the last 4 digits of the victim’s SSN: So can a real IRS rep.
  • Scammers spoof the IRS toll-free phone number on caller ID: When I have received calls from revenue officers, offer in compromise examiners, and appeals agents, it usually shows “Unknown” on caller ID, so this is good to know.
  • Scammers sometimes follow up the call with a bogus email: Real IRS agents never send emails, so this is actually a dead giveaway.
  • Scammers produce phony call center background noise: I have often heard phones ringing and low chatter that is characteristic of a call center when talking with the IRS, so I’m not sure how helpful this tip is.

I think this IRS warning is useful, but only by becoming familiar with the entire list of characteristics.  If you receive a call fitting one of the above descriptions, there may not be cause for concern (unless you are asked to provide credit card info).  But if you receive a call with many of the above characteristics, it is probably a phony IRS call and a scam.