Keeping your assets and identity safe has become more important and challenging than ever, as it seems like there’s some new type of fraud to be aware of daily. The rise of tech-savvy scammers targeting taxpayers with deceitful Internal Revenue Service (IRS) letters adds a layer of complexity to keeping your sensitive data out of the wrong hands.
These criminals employ many tactics, from counterfeit tax refunds and tax returns to other misleading communication with taxpayers, such as “IRS email” scams. They’ve become so skillful that the IRS issued a statement at a tax security summit at the end of the most recent fiscal year, warning taxpayers about some of these scams.
But how can you tell the difference between a real IRS letter vs a fake IRS letter? Keep reading to learn how to distinguish dangerous IRS communication scams from the real deal and what to do if you suspect your financial security may be compromised.
Common Reasons For Receiving IRS Letters
The IRS may initiate contact with taxpayers for several reasons. One of the most common reasons is a notification about a discrepancy in your tax returns. For example, the IRS might contact you if the income or deductions reported on your tax forms don’t match the information they have on file from your employer or financial institutions.
Another reason you might receive a letter from the IRS could be due to outstanding tax debt. If you owe taxes from previous years or have failed to make necessary payments, the IRS will contact you by mail to notify you about this and instruct you on what steps to take next.
You might also get a letter from the IRS if you’re due for tax refunds. Or the IRS needs to verify your identity or requires additional information to process your tax return.
Characteristics Of Legitimate IRS Correspondence
Legitimate letters from the IRS have distinct features that can help you tell they’re authentic. The United States Postal Service always delivers a letter from the IRS instead of a third-party shipping service that often emails or sends information through other digital channels.
Authentic letters include genuine IRS taxpayer assistance contact information to help you connect with IRS representatives if needed. Always verify any contact information through the official IRS website. Any website or email address should end in “.gov.”
Legitimate communication from the IRS is all business. It tends to be detailed and objective-specific. The IRS provides information about the issue at hand, whether it’s about your tax account, certain aspects of your tax deductions, outstanding tax debt, or tax refunds. These details should align with your records, which is another way to determine a letter’s credibility.
Letters related to scams from IRS fraudsters won’t have all these details or may arrive through various shipping services to look more legitimate.
Red Flags Indicating A Fake IRS Letter
Counterfeit or deceptive communication claiming to be from the IRS is generally easy to spot. Scam letters usually ask for “tax payments” via wire transfers, prepaid debit cards, or third-party apps — which the IRS doesn’t use and would never request.
If the letter requests personal details such as your PIN for credit cards, bank routing information, or other sensitive data, it’s almost certainly a scam. Authentic IRS communications never request specific personal or financial information via mail. It’s also important to note that real IRS letters or IRS emails won’t threaten immediate legal action, especially not in an initial contact communication.
Tactics Of Scammers Using Fake IRS Letters
Unfortunately, scams involving fake IRS letters are surprisingly common and have taken advantage of people who didn’t know how to identify these letters as counterfeit. Let’s look at some common types of fraudulent IRS letter scams you should be aware of:
- Refund Scams. These scams generally involve a large refund, often resulting from a “computer error” or an unclaimed deduction. They’ll typically ask for personal details or a “processing fee” to claim the refund. Of course, there is no refund, and the thieves are only after your data or money. Sometimes, “ghost preparers” will send you a completed but unsigned tax form and encourage you to submit it to claim this alleged large refund. These are also scams. You should never send such a form to the IRS.
- Unresolved Tax Debt Scams. You may receive a letter claiming that you owe a large sum in unpaid taxes, with the threat of possible legal action if you don’t make payment promptly. This demand can sometimes come with instructions to pay through unusual methods like gift cards or wire transfers. The actual IRS will always send multiple notifications through official channels like certified mail before considering legal action and would never request uncommon payment methods.
- Phishing Scams. These are among the most common IRS email scams and contain malicious links or attachments to hijack your personal or financial data, like social security numbers and credit card accounts. The IRS typically avoids sending links or attachments in their communication, but this is a favorite tactic of identity thieves.
- Identity Theft Scams. These requests are a common form of IRS spam and can happen via mail and phone. Someone claiming to be with the IRS will call or send you an email or letter asking for sensitive details like your Social Security number, banking information, or date of birth. They usually do this under the pretense of verifying your identity to resolve a tax issue. Unexpected IRS calls are rare, and IRS communication via email wouldn’t require such specific information.
- Employment Retention Credit Scam. Watch out for an “employment retention credit” scam claiming you’re due a significant startup tax credit relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. You’ll typically receive a scam mailing saying you qualify for an “employment retention credit” (ERC) that you haven’t claimed. The ERC was a genuine tax credit that qualifying employers could claim during the COVID-19 pandemic to cover wages and healthcare costs of employees who stayed with their business. However, the program has since expired, and the final deadline for people to claim the ERC was in September 2023. Any letter from “tax preparers” about unclaimed ERC funds is fraudulent.
Steps To Confirm An IRS Letter’s Legitimacy
A letter from the IRS will have characteristics you can use to verify its authenticity. Here’s what you can do to ensure you didn’t get a fake IRS letter:
Check The Letter For Identifying Features
Look for the official IRS logo and letterhead, including the correct address and phone number. Dates should be recent, accurate, and accurately formatted, and they should include official IRS security or file numbers you can refer to for more information. A fake letter won’t have this information.
Analyze The Content
Examine the content of the received letters. Check for the following things:
Reason For Contact
The reasons for contacting you should be clear, whether it’s account updates, audits, form inquiries, or payment reminders. IRS scam letters tend to be confusingly worded, vague, and with a suspicious lack of detail. The IRS typically doesn’t contact taxpayers by email unless there’s an ongoing issue and they have already been in touch.
Tone Of The Letter
The letter’s formatting and language should be professional, with no typos, grammatical errors, or strange fonts. It should address you by name and refer to details specific to your tax situation, such as your Social Security number and tax years. IRS scammers won’t have access to this kind of information.
Official letters won’t threaten you with legal action or demand immediate payment but offer payment options and ways to respond and resolve issues. Urgent wording and language demanding immediate payment through odd ways, such as wire transfers, is a characteristic of scam IRS letters.
Verify Contact Information
All IRS phone numbers and website addresses should match those on the IRS.gov website, and a specific notice number or reference code may be at the top or bottom of the letter. Don’t hesitate to reach out to the IRS directly if you’re unsure.
Seek Additional Help
If you encounter a scam involving someone trying to impersonate official IRS personnel, you can report it to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) online at ReportFraud.ftc.gov. Find more information on this on the official IRS page about common scams. If the fraud involves threats or potential identity theft, don’t hesitate to file a report with your local police department.
If you suspect you may be the victim of identity theft, check out the FTC’s website at IdentityTheft.gov for helpful resources and steps to take for recovery.
Stay Vigilant Against IRS Scams
To protect yourself from scams, don’t respond to suspicious letters in any way—don’t send money, click links, or reveal personal information. Update the passwords on all your financial and email accounts, plus any online accounts mentioned in the letter.
Additionally, regularly monitor your credit report for anything unusual and consider implementing a fraud alert. Never hesitate to contact the authorities or tax professionals and financial advisors if you believe you’ve been the target of IRS tax scams.
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