How can I tell if a call from the “IRS” is legitimate or a scam?

The IRS released an alert last week about the continuing rash of telephone calls from scam artists pretending to be the IRS. The alert provided guidance on how to recognize when contact from the IRS is legitimate or is from a scam artist seeking to steal money from you.

The calls from scam artists are taking one of two forms typically. The first form is an outright demand for money. The caller will claim that you have unpaid taxes or other fees you must pay to the IRS. The caller may threaten you will additional fines or legal action in the event you do not contact them quickly and meet their demands.

The second form promises a refund. In order to obtain the refund, you must provide personal information such as your Social Security Number in order to validate your identity and your bank account information so the IRS knows where to deposit the refund. However, the scam artists will in fact use this information to take money out of your bank account and possibly commit identify theft.

In either case, the scam artists will have a well-rehearsed story. They will know enough information about you to make their demands or requests sound convincing. If they have to leave you a message, they will state that returning their call is a time sensitive matter. In addition, the caller ID information for the number from which the scam artists are calling will indicate the call is coming from the IRS.

The IRS alert made a point of emphasizing that you can easily tell the difference between a call from a scam artist and legitimate contact from the IRS if you know what to look for. The IRS outlined the signs of a scam artist in a five-point summary.

Make Contact via Telephone Call First

When the IRS needs to contact a taxpayer, the IRS always initiates the contact using an official written notice. If the first contact you receive from the IRS is via a telephone call, the call is from a scam artist.

Issue Demand for Payment without Offering Opportunity for an Appeal

When the IRS determines that a taxpayer owes money to the IRS, whether that money relates to unpaid tax liability, fines, or interest, the taxpayer will always have the opportunity to appeal the case and present evidence to support the appeal. Scam artists who demand payment will do so without offering the opportunity for you to appeal the rest. If you mention an appeal, the scam artist will likely increase the threats against you.

Specify the Type of Payment Method You Must Use

When an individual legitimately owes money to the IRS, the IRS will accept payment via a debit or credit card. In addition, the IRS may allow you to establish an installment agreement to pay the money owed over time.

In the case of a scam artist, the person will want the money immediately, often requiring that you provide payment via a prepaid debit card.

Require that You Provide Payment Information over the Phone

The IRS has established partners through which it accepts payment via credit and debit card. Although you must provide your credit or debit card information to the payment partners in order to remit payment to the IRS, these processes do not require that you provide your card information verbally.

Threaten to Arrest You

If you indicate that you are unwilling or unable to pay the money the scam artist indicates you owe, the scam artist may threaten to have the police sent to your home to have you arrested.

Although the IRS may involve law enforcement officers, the involvement of law enforcement by the IRS is in only extreme cases where an individual has shown a blatant disregard for working with the IRS over time.


If you receive a call from someone claiming to represent the IRS who is asking for money, you should not contact them using any number they may leave. Rather, call the IRS at 1-800-829-1040. A representative from the IRS can tell you if there is a legitimate issue with your taxes.

You can report contact from scam artists claiming to be from the IRS by visiting the FTC Complaint Assistant at

Whom should I speak with if I need help addressing a legitimate issue with the IRS?

If you owe money to the IRS or have other questions about preparing your tax return, you can get help by contacting a tax attorney. A tax attorney can answer questions about completing your tax return or resolving a dispute with the IRS about money you may owe.

You can contact a tax attorney by calling the number at the top of this web site or by completing the form below. Your initial conversation with a tax attorney is free, so you have every reason to get help today.

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by Mark Johnston

Mark has been a contributor to legal web sites related to bankruptcy, tax, and criminal law since 2011. He has an Accounting degree from Texas A&M University.