Scam Phone Calls & Text Messages: How to Spot & Report Them

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Unscrupulous individuals have been devising ways to steal from unsuspecting individuals for centuries. It’s nothing new, but scams have taken off in the millennium. In fact, the IRS says that Americans have lost millions of dollars due to tax scams alone. They’ve been targeted by phone, snail mail, and email, and even via social media and text messages in 2020.

COVID-19 Scams

Scammers have seized on COVID-19, the novel coronavirus sweeping the country and the world in 2020. In exchange for a “processing fee,” they offer everything from vaccinations and treatment options to help with getting those government emergency aid checks a little bit faster or in larger amounts. Some emails even indicate that they're being sent by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Federal Trade Commission cautioned on March 18, 2020 that these scammers are just starting to warm up.

The Better Business Bureau has also warned that seniors have been targeted and promised grants to help meet their medical bills. This scammer claims to be the “U.S. Emergency Grants Federation” – an agency that doesn’t exist – and will tell you that it needs your Social Security number to make sure you’re eligible. Don’t bite.

According to the BBB, you might receive a text message or even come across a social media post offering a “special COVID-19 government grant.” You’ll end up on an official-looking website if you click on the links, and you’ll be asked to provide personal and bank account details to verify your identity. Don't do it.

Calls From “the IRS”

Fake calls from the IRS have been around a lot longer than the coronavirus and these scammers picked up steam in 2019, employing new tricks and opening their nets a little wider to take in recent immigrants, too. These authoritative and sometimes angry and abusive callers will tell you that they’re with the IRS, and they often offer names and ID badge numbers. Make no mistake, they’re good at this. You might even hear fabricated office noises in the background.

They'll typically tell you that you owe a tax balance and that you must pay it immediately or risk deportation or arrest. You’ll be instructed to pay up perhaps by purchasing a prepaid debit or gift card and providing the number to the caller, or by wiring the money. You might even receive a second follow-up call if you refuse, pretending to be from law enforcement.

Another version of this scam is an offer of an unexpected tax refund. All you have to do to collect it is give some personal information, such as your bank account number, to let the "IRS" know where to send the money.

Calls from the “Taxpayer Advocate Service”

This one really picked up steam at the end of 2019. Your caller ID will tell you that the Taxpayer Advocate Service, an organization within the IRS, is calling you. It’s not. One flag is that the TAS number that appears might have a Brooklyn or Houston area code, such as 718, 347, 917, 929 and 713, 81, 346 and 832, respectively.

These are largely info-gathering scammers who will attempt to get you to turn over your Social Security number or other information they can later use to steal your identity. They might even already know the last four digits of your SSN. They’re looking for the other five.

Calls From “Social Security”

The Social Security Administration was dragged into these scams in 2019 as well. Another rampant trick is a robocall that leaves a message alerting victims to the possibility that their SSN is about to be canceled or suspended, typically because they owe the IRS.

You’ll be instructed by these scammers to pay up promptly over the phone, and they, too, might already have the last four digits of your SSN.

How to Know If It’s Really the Government

Receiving an email or text message is a dead giveaway that you’re being scammed. The same goes for anything that pops up on social media. Plain and simple, the IRS does not and never has reached out to taxpayers by email, text or anywhere online, nor will any other federal government agency. As for those calls that are supposed to be from the Taxpayer Advocate Service, the TAS will never call you to initiate contact, but only to respond to a call or request for help that you’ve made to them.

Another clue is that the IRS will never tell you how you’re supposed to make payment, much less ask for a debit or gift card number, a wire transfer, or even a credit card number over the phone. Legitimate, official IRS payment options for bona fide tax debts are available all over the internet. The IRS will never tell you to make payment to anyone other than the U.S. Treasury Department.

Finally, the IRS is perfectly capable of fighting its own battles. It never involves local law enforcement or Immigration, and it never threatens immediate arrest. You can rest assured that it won’t chase you down to expedite a tax refund it owes you, either, nor will it charge you an extra fee to get that coronavirus stimulus check to you a little faster.

If You Do Owe Taxes

You’ve probably known about it for quite some time if you actually do owe the IRS money. You should have been notified by U.S.P.S. mail of the amount due and of your options if you think the amount is incorrect. The IRS is quite fond of snail mail and almost invariably initiates contact with taxpayers this way first.

The IRS might come calling in person – after mailing you numerous notifications – to collect in some isolated, big-money circumstances, but the agent or agents will always provide two forms of ID: a pocket commission and an HSPD-12 card. And they won’t demand immediate, on-the-spot payment.

What to Do – and Not Do

Do not answer an out-of-the-blue phone call from the IRS or any other government agency. Note the caller ID number instead. Hang up immediately if do you happen to take the call. Staying on the line can indicate that you’re gullible so future calls might come pouring in.

Never call the number back if a robocall leaves a message, instructing you to do so, and never press a key to be transferred to a “live operator.” This, too, is like waving a flag to tell the scammer that you’re open to receiving more calls. Don’t click on links in emails or text messages, either. You could end up downloading a virus or malware.

Never provide any personal information to the caller.

Who to Call for Help

You can take several steps to turn these scammers in if one of them tries trick you:

  • You can report phone scams to the Federal Trade Commission at FTC.gov. There’s a special tool there to guide you, the “FTC Complaint Assistant.” The FTC asks that you include the words “IRS Telephone Scam” in the notes. You can also call them at 877-FTC-HELP.
  • Forward email scams to phishing@irs.gov. You can also report scammers’ caller IDs and callback numbers here if you make note of them. Include the words “IRS Phone Scam” in the subject line.

As for that agent who’s ringing your doorbell and waving a pocket commission and an HSPD-12 card, ask them for a dedicated IRS telephone number. You can call it to report the visit and to verify the information on the IDs to confirm the agent’s identity.

References

About the Author

Beverly Bird has been writing professionally for over 30 years. She is also a paralegal, specializing in areas of personal finance, bankruptcy and estate law. She writes as the tax expert for The Balance.