Dirty Dozen List - "IRS" Phishing and Other Identity Theft

The Dirty Dozen List

Every year, the IRS releases a "Dirty Dozen" list of tax scams to increase awareness and remind people to exercise caution with requests for personal information this time of year.

The schemes are most prevalent during tax season, when taxpayer interest is on the rise. About half involve some form of identity theft. Someone tries to get your personal information (name, social security number, etc.) by impersonating an IRS agent, charitable organization or tax-preparer; and then files a fake tax return in your name or steals your money.

For the third year in a row, email phishing scams are high on the list. Other email-related scams are on the rise.


In a phishing scam, you receive an email with an urgent-sounding message about a fake crisis and instructions on what action to take. It's usually about an online account like a bank or credit card. To resolve the "problem", the message urges you to click on a link in the email. Don't click the link.

The link will take you to a fake login screen owned by the scammer, who will steal your username, password, account numbers, etc. Armed with that information, the website's owner can file a fake tax return for a fraudulent refund, open up credit cards, wipe out your banks accounts and more, all disguised as you. Cleaning up the mess can take years and cost you a small fortune.

How to Spot a Phishing Scam

Many phishing scams are easy to spot. Be suspicious of any email that address you as "Dear Valued Customer" or something like that. Companies you do business with know your name and will usually use it in email. Other tip-offs include bad spelling, poor grammar and odd-looking or missing graphics. Here's an example of one from last year:

IRS Phishing Scam

IRS Phishing Scam

Note that it opens with "Dear Citizen" instead of the recipient's name, the formatting and graphics look amateurish, the spelling and grammer are bad, and the message is overly urgent (only three hours to claim the refund bonus).

Some phishing scams are more sophisticated and more difficult for people to figure out. We've recently seen ones that look very convincing and have few spelling or grammar errors. The more insidious "spear" phishing scams, usually done after someone gets some of your information, are addressed to you personally.

How to Avoid Phishing Scams

To avoid becoming a victim of a phishing scam, NEVER click the link in an email. If you believe you need to check your bank, credit card or other online account, simply type the company's actual website address into your browser and log in as usual.

IRS Phone Scams

IRS phone scams are number two on this year's list. You get a call from someone pretending to work for or with the IRS. They might tell you you're entitled to a refund or owe money. The caller might know your name, the last four digits of your social security number, or other information they might have gotten from other methods. The scammer is trying to get you to send them money or provide sensitive personal information so they can steal your identity. They may send a "confirming" email if they have your email address and phone number.

The callers can be very harassing. Sometimes they warn that you'll be arrested or prosecuted if you don't comply. Some even have another person follow up on the phone pretending to be from a law enforcement agency. They can even "spoof" the number that appear on your caller ID to make it look like they're from the IRS or the police.

The IRS offers some advice on what to do if you get a call like this. If you think you owe taxes or need to provide information to the IRS, call them directly at 800-829-1040.

Regardless of whether you owe or not, you can report the incident to the Treasury Department and you can file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission:

  • To report the incident, call the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration at 800-366-4484.
  • To file a complaint, go to ftc.gov. Use the "FTC Complaint Assistant" and include "IRS Telephone Scam" in the comments of your complaint.

Fake Charities

These are popular after major natural disasters, but can occur anytime. A caller or email pretends to be soliciting contributions for a charitable organization to provide relief for victims. Sometimes these scammers try to reach disaster victims, pretending to be distributing aid. Either way, they just want to get enough personal information to steal the persons' identity or money.

The IRS provides some tips for handling these types of calls or emails:

  • Only donate to charities you already know and can trust.
  • Go to irs.gov to confirm the alleged charity's tax-exempt status. Use the "Exempt Organizations Select Check" search.
  • Do NOT provide the caller or sender your personal information. You probably should not reply to the email at all. The scammer might be trying to find legitimate email addresses to spam later.
  • Never send or give cash to such groups.
  • Disaster Victims: If you're the victim of a natural disaster and need information about disaster-related tax issues, call the IRS toll-free disaster assistance number at 866-562-5227.

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