Every year, fraudsters pose as the IRS to try and steal personal information and money from unsuspecting taxpayers. IRS scams are not exclusive to tax season, but they’re more prominent in the months leading up to April’s tax deadline.

Most of the time, there are telltale signs that will clue you in to whether an IRS contact is legitimate or fraudulent. But the hardest IRS scams to discern are IRS mail scams.

We’ll give you some tips on how to detect whether or not you’ve received a fake IRS letter in the mail.

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IRS Mail Scams

There are many different IRS scams that try and bait taxpayers (we’ll review a few of them at the very end). Nowadays, people use the Internet for just about everything: communication, making payments, and, yes, filing taxes. Most IRS scams these days are either email-based or phone-based.

That’s why mail scams can catch you off-guard. Mail is the primary means by which the IRS contacts taxpayers. Whenever you receive a letter from the IRS, it seems to come with extra weight. You know it’s going to be either good or not good. Either you’re getting your tax return, or you’re being notified that’s something’s not quite right with your taxes, and you’ll have to mail in some additional information. Taxpayers pay extra attention to IRS letters. But not all taxpayers make sure that the letter is legitimate.

Thanks to advanced photo-editing software, it’s easier than ever for con artists to draft letters with an IRS layout and font. They look extremely accurate. Furthermore, mail scams tend to target non-citizens who reside within the United States. Fraudsters know that non-residents are more likely to be unfamiliar with IRS methodology, and they might also feel more pressured to respond to aggressive financial threats.

There are a few key features on your IRS letter that will prove it to be legitimate or fake. Some of these features deal with the actual content of the letter, while other features are formalistic. Additionally, the IRS has helpful resources that can verify the validity of a letter.

How to Know Your IRS Letter is Real

Content

The content of the correspondence might be an indicator of whether the letter is real or fake. The IRS contacts taxpayers for a few specific reasons:

  • You have a balance due
  • You are due a larger or smaller refund
  • The IRS has a question about your tax return
  • The IRS needs to verify your identity
  • The IRS needs additional information from you
  • The IRS has changed your tax return
  • The IRS is notifying you of delays in processing your return

The IRS does not grant gift money. Some taxpayers, for example, receive a letter that says something like:

“Congratulations! After reviewing your tax return, the IRS has decided to grant you a special tax return of $1,000. Please mail your bank account information to the address below so we can deposit your tax return.”

The IRS is tasked with collecting money, not giving it away. The only time you should receive money from the IRS is when you get your tax return, or refunds that may be result of your tax return being amended. The IRS will already have your address and will automatically mail these to you; they won’t have to ask for your bank account information.

Another fake IRS letter that has been circulated is similar to this:

“Attention taxpayer. You owe $2,000 in taxes to the IRS. If you don’t pay this amount immediately, you may be subject to tax penalties or imprisonment. Please make payment to the address below. We only accept electronic payments.”

This type of letter is an attempt to capitalize on a fearful reaction that’s caused by the aggressive tone. First of all, the IRS will give you multiple notifications of outstanding debt. Second, the IRS never demands only one form of payment. The IRS will always give you payment options. Fraudsters prefer electronic payments because checks can be easily invalidated when given to someone other than who’s denoted.

Remember that the IRS is a very detail-oriented agency. Each letter should come with very specific instructions on how to respond to its queries. The letter will usually have bullet points that detail each instruction. Some letter may clearly state that no reply is needed. If the content of an IRS letter seems rushed or vague, it’s likely that it could be a fake IRS letter.

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Letter Identification

Real IRS letters have either a notice number (CP) or letter number (LTR) on either the top or bottom right-hand corner of the letter. If there’s no notice number or letter, it’s likely that the letter is fraudulent.

It’s recommended you call the IRS at 800-829-1040. You can give them the notice number or letter number that’s on the correspondence, and an IRS representative will tell you whether or not it’s legitimate.

How to Report IRS Scams

Always report fake letters to the IRS. This helps the IRS identify scams that are in circulation among taxpayers. You can report fraudulent IRS letters to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) or directly to the IRS at phishing@irs.gov.

Either of those resources will give you instructions on what to do with the fake letter; usually they’ll ask you to dispose of it.

Other IRS Scams

There are some other widespread IRS scams that you should be aware of. Sometimes, you might actually get a phone call from someone who’s impersonating an IRS representative. This person may use aggressive language (the IRS strictly prohibits its representatives to use such tones) or ask for your personal or bank account information. Never give out your personal information in such a way.

Similarly, you might get an email from someone pretending to be from the IRS, and they might ask for similar information from you over threats of financial penalties or imprisonment. These practices are known as “phishing.” Hackers and con-artists are “phishing” for personal information from unsuspecting taxpayers.

Be aware that the IRS never will contact you first over the phone or over email. This is not generally how the IRS contacts taxpayers. The IRS always initiates correspondence through letters. And, so long as you know the key features of a real IRS letter, you’ll never be victimized by IRS impersonators.

If you receive a real letter from the IRS, be sure to do some research on what to do if the IRS contacts you before you reply.