Here’s What You Need To Know If You Get A Call Claiming To Be From The IRS

It's finally happened to me: After missing a call this morning, I checked my voicemail, only to find a threatening message telling me a tax lawsuit has been filed in my name, and if I don't respond immediately, the caller is going to issue a warrant for my arrest. Thankfully, I am wise to the ways of IRS phone scammers, so I deleted the voicemail and moved on with my day. But for folks who are new to the tax world or who may not realize just how convincing scammers can be, IRS phone scams can pose a very real danger.

The pattern repeats each year: Around tax time, the scammers target unsuspecting people by phone or email, posing as IRS agents and claiming that the would-be victim pay them via prepaid gift cards, wire transfers, or other methods. The scammers often use threats and intimidation to scare people into paying up. Recently a Detroit woman who handed over $1,000 to scammers who demanded she load money onto Google cards to pay off her supposed IRS debt of $15,000 spoke out about scams, saying the person on the phone told her if she didn't pay up, "in two hours there will be a sheriff on your doorstep," WXYZ Detroit reported.

Threats like that are a common feature of IRS phone scams. One Twitter user who posted about her scammer experience on April 3 said she was accused of ignoring bills from the IRS, and when she snarked back at the person who'd called her, he screamed, "I WILL SEND THE POLICE."

Even though I know the template for IRS scam calls, I still felt my stomach lurch when the scammer who'd called me said they would put out an "arrest warrant." It's easy to see how people could be scared into giving up money, especially if they're talking directly to an aggressive scammer.

So here's what you should know to keep yourself, your family, and your friends armed against scammers (who are, BTW, committing a crime). The IRS issued a fact sheet about knowing whether it's really the IRS you're chatting with, and the first thing to know is that the IRS will almost always contact you "through regular mail delivered by the United States Postal Service."

However, the IRS says it will contact you by phone or come to your home or business in "special circumstances [...] such as when a taxpayer has an overdue tax bill." But even when that happens, the IRS says, you will have received multiple notices in the mail first. If you're reasonably sure you don't owe a severely overdue tax bill, are not in the middle of being audited, and haven't received any paper notices, someone calling you claiming you owe a sum of money that you need to pay immediately is more than likely not legit.

Another hallmark of IRS phone scammers is the demand for specific types of payments. The Detroit woman who lost $1,000 was told to go to Kroger and put money on a Google card, WXYZ Detroit reported. The Treasury Department also recently issued a scam alert in a statement to CNBC, specifically warning that scammers are now asking people to pay their back taxes by loading money onto iTunes gift cards and reading out the 16-digit gift card code over the phone.

In case it's not obvious, the IRS would never ask you to pay your back taxes by buying gift cards. The IRS specifies that a real IRS agent speaking with you would never demand you pay what you owe using any specific method, including "a prepaid debit card, gift card or wire transfer." If you do owe the IRS money, you'll be able to confer with an agent about what legitimate methods you can choose to use, including paying directly out of your bank account or with a (regular, not prepaid) debit or credit card. The IRS also says that a real agent will not demand you pay taxes "without the opportunity to question or appeal the amount they say you owe," nor will you be asked to pay "immediately."

And above all, people who won't tell you information about what you supposedly owe, then threaten to send "the police" or "the cops" are absolutely scammers. No IRS agent will threaten to bring in "local police, immigration officers or other law-enforcement to have you arrested for not paying," the IRS says. The IRS is also not capable of using the fact that you owe taxes to "revoke your driver's license, business licenses, or immigration status."

The bottom line is, if someone is being aggressive with you, requesting immediate payment, or just seems generally fishy, don't worry about being rude. Just hang up on them. If you're concerned that the person may actually have been from the IRS and you've somehow missed a notice or owe money you don't know about, contact the IRS to ask. In this case, the old adage is the golden rule: Better safe than sorry.