As income tax season nears, the IRS is warning consumers about a sophisticated telephone scam that tries to trick and intimidate people into paying phony tax bills.
The scammers -- who have struck in Pennsylvania and nearly every other state, the agency says -- use fake IRS badge numbers, may be able to recite the last four digits of a potential victim's Social Security number, and spoof the agency's toll-free number on caller ID to make it appear that an IRS agent is on the line.
Potential victims are told they owe money that must be paid promptly though a pre-paid debit card or wire transfer. If they refuse to cooperate, consumers are threatened with arrest, deportation or suspension of their driver's license.
In many cases, the scam callers become hostile and insulting, the Internal Revenue Service said. Scammers sometimes send fake IRS emails as a backup to help make their calls seem legitimate.
Potential victims also may receive a follow-up call from someone pretending to be from the local police or state motor vehicles department.
The amount that taxpayers are told they owe varies depending on how much the telemarketers think they can get away with, said Lois Greisman, associate director for marketing at the IRS.
Ms. Greisman did not know how many consumers were actually duped by this latest scam, but said the number likely was substantial.
"Impersonating the IRS is unfortunately something we see all too much of," especially around tax time, she said. "I'm positive people are falling prey to it because the scam wouldn't be a recurring one if it didn't work."
Consumers can protect themselves by knowing how the IRS handles legitimate tax issues.
"The IRS is not going to call and ask for money," Ms. Greisman said.
Anyone who gets a phone call demanding immediate payment of back taxes should consider it a red flag.
The agency also does not contact taxpayers by email to request personal financial information such as personal identification numbers, passwords or bank account numbers. Contact concerning a tax issue likely would come via U.S. mail.
People who believe they may owe taxes should call the IRS at 1-800-829-1040 to speak with an IRS representative.
"You should be the one placing a call to the IRS using a number you are certain is an IRS number," Ms. Greisman said.
Consumers who suspect they've been the target of the scam should report the incident to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration at 1-800-366-4484.
Also contact the Federal Trade Commission at FTC.gov by using the FTC Complaint Assistant. Include "IRS Telephone Scam" in the comment section of the complaint.
Consumers also should avoid opening attachments or clicking on any links in suspicious emails. Forward the emails to email@example.com.
Patricia Sabatini: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-3066.