I was inspired to create this post by a few clients that contacted us recently. Read on to learn how to protect yourself from IRS scams. The names below are fictitious to preserve client confidentiality.
Client #1 “Bob”: Bob went to a tax return preparer named “Jimmy” to have his 2015 tax return filed. Bob heard from a friend that Jimmy was a tax pro and would get him the biggest refund. As agreed to, Jimmy prepared the tax return and went over it with him. The preparer then had Bob sign a “refund anticipation loan” so that the refund would be directly sent to the preparer. In exchange, Bob would get his refund immediately from the preparer (minus a small fee) rather than having to wait for the IRS to process the return. A few months later, Bob needed to request a return transcript from the IRS as required for a loan. When he received the transcript he noticed that the refund amount on the transcript was larger than the refund that was on his copy of the return. After a consultation, Bob learned that he was a victim of tax preparer fraud. Jimmy prepared two tax returns for Bob – a fake return and the one he actually filed with the IRS. The fake return had a significantly smaller refund amount than the actual return. And the actual return had overstated deductions that Bob did not qualify for. The preparer pocketed the difference of the refund amounts.
How do you protect yourself from this type of fraud? First, be sure you pick the right tax professional. Second, do not rely solely on word of mouth. Many tax return preparers are popular with their clients because they maximize clients’ refunds by claiming erroneous deductions and credits. Second, steer clear of refund anticipation loans (RAL). Be especially wary of return preparers that are pushy with RALs. Third, review the documents that you are signing and ask questions if you’re not sure.
Client #2 “Jane”: Jane received a phone call from someone claiming to be from the IRS fraud department. The caller told Jane that she was past due on her IRS debt and that if she did not pay immediately, she would be arrested in 45 minutes. Fortunately, Jane was smart enough to sense that something was wrong and called us about it.
How do you protect yourself from this type of fraud? First, do not give out any personal information to anyone claiming they represent the IRS. The IRS generally does not initiate phone calls to taxpayers, and they certainly will not call threatening to arrest you. IRS communicates through mail, unless you are in the IRS collections process. Even then, this wouldn’t be the first time the IRS has reached out to you regarding past due taxes. You would have received numerous letters from the IRS before IRS collections calls you. Additionally, the IRS would not ask you to wire money or demand payment over the phone. If in doubt, hang up and call the IRS 1-800 number on the latest IRS correspondence you received.
You should report telephone scams to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration. Use TIGTA’s IRS Impersonation Scam Reporting web page to report the incident. You should also report it to the Federal Trade Commission using the FTC Complaint Assistant. Please add “IRS Telephone Scam” to the comments of your report.
The IRS “Dirty Dozen” List
The IRS released their yearly Dirty Dozen tax scams for 2016. The above cases are just a few of the many different types of scams out there. Here’s the rest of them.
Identity Theft: Taxpayers need to watch out for identity theft especially around tax time. The IRS continues to aggressively pursue the criminals that file fraudulent returns using someone else’s Social Security number. Though the agency is making progress on this front, taxpayers still need to be extremely careful and do everything they can to avoid being victimized. (IR-2016-12)
Phone Scams: Phone calls from criminals impersonating IRS agents remain an ongoing threat to taxpayers. The IRS has seen a surge of these phone scams in recent years as scam artists threaten taxpayers with police arrest, deportation and license revocation, among other things. (IR-2016-14)
Phishing: Taxpayers need to be on guard against fake emails or websites looking to steal personal information. The IRS will never send taxpayers an email about a bill or refund out of the blue. Don’t click on one claiming to be from the IRS. Be wary of strange emails and websites that may be nothing more than scams to steal personal information. (IR-2016-15)
Return Preparer Fraud: Be on the lookout for unscrupulous return preparers. The vast majority of tax professionals provide honest high-quality service. But there are some dishonest preparers who set up shop each filing season to perpetrate refund fraud, identity theft and other scams that hurt taxpayers. Legitimate tax professionals are a vital part of the U.S. tax system. (IR-2016-16)
Offshore Tax Avoidance: The recent string of successful enforcement actions against offshore tax cheats and the financial organizations that help them shows that it’s a bad bet to hide money and income offshore. Taxpayers are best served by coming in voluntarily and getting caught up on their tax-filing responsibilities. The IRS offers the Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program (OVDP) to enable people catch up on their filing and tax obligations. (IR-2016-17)
Inflated Refund Claims: Taxpayers need to be on the lookout for anyone promising inflated refunds. Be wary of anyone who asks taxpayers to sign a blank return, promises a big refund before looking at their records, or charges fees based on a percentage of the refund. Scam artists use flyers, advertisements, phony store fronts and word of mouth via community groups where trust is high to find victims. (IR-2016-18)
Fake Charities: Be on guard against groups masquerading as charitable organizations to attract donations from unsuspecting contributors. Be wary of charities with names similar to familiar or nationally-known organizations. Contributors should take a few extra minutes to ensure their hard-earned money goes to legitimate and currently eligible charities. IRS.gov has the tools taxpayers need to check out the status of charitable organizations. (IR-2016-20)
Falsely Padding Deductions on Returns: Taxpayers should avoid the temptation of falsely inflating deductions or expenses on their returns to under pay what they owe or possibly receive larger refunds. Think twice before overstating deductions such as charitable contributions and business expenses or improperly claiming such credits as the Earned Income Tax Credit or Child Tax Credit. (IR-2016-21)
Excessive Claims for Business Credits: Avoid improperly claiming the fuel tax credit, a tax benefit generally not available to most taxpayers. The credit is generally limited to off-highway business use, including use in farming. Taxpayers should also avoid misuse of the research credit. Improper claims generally involve failures to participate in or substantiate qualified research activities and/or satisfy the requirements related to qualified research expenses. (IR-2016-22)
Falsifying Income to Claim Credits: Don’t invent income to erroneously qualify for tax credits, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit. Taxpayers are sometimes talked into doing this by scam artists. Taxpayers are best served by filing the most-accurate return possible because they are legally responsible for what is on their return. This scam can lead to taxpayers facing big bills to pay back taxes, interest and penalties. In some cases, they may even face criminal prosecution. (IR-2016-23)
Abusive Tax Shelters: Don’t use abusive tax structures to avoid paying taxes. The IRS is committed to stopping complex tax avoidance schemes and the people who create and sell them. The vast majority of taxpayers pay their fair share, and everyone should be on the lookout for people peddling tax shelters that sound too good to be true. When in doubt, taxpayers should seek an independent opinion regarding complex products they are offered. (IR-2016-25)
Frivolous Tax Arguments: Don’t use frivolous tax arguments in an effort to avoid paying tax. Promoters of frivolous schemes encourage taxpayers to make unreasonable and outlandish claims Even though they are wrong and have been repeatedly thrown out of court. While taxpayers have the right to contest their tax liabilities in court, no one has the right to disobey the law or disregard their responsibility to pay taxes. The penalty for filing a frivolous tax return is $5,000. (IR-2016-27)