WASHINGTON — Maybe your tax return is done and you've already spent your refund.
Or you might have learned you owed the IRS this year, and you're struggling to find the funds to pay your tax bill.
No matter where you stand on your taxes, one thing is certain: After the April 15 tax deadline, the scammers will show up like the folks lining up for the club in the song "Freaks Come Out At Night" by Whodini.
With apologies to that catchy tune, the fraudsters are all over taxpayers like white on rice. And they come in all shapes, sizes and colors. They are women and men. They live in the U.S. and abroad. They may sound kind or be aggressively unfriendly. But the end game is the same: They are trained to use your fear of the IRS to steal your money.
"Imposters are very clever in timing scams," said Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumers League. "Fraudsters use that post-tax-day period to take advantage of taxpayers' anxiety by pretending to be from the IRS."
So be on the lookout for the following tax-related scams.
- "I'm calling from the IRS." You might get a disturbing call from someone impersonating an official from the agency. In this "imposter scam," the person might threaten you with prison time. Con artists in this scam frequently target seniors, scaring them into thinking they owe the IRS. They claim that if the bill isn't paid immediately, the taxpayer will be arrested.
The Federal Trade Commission said that — for the first time last year — the type of impostor scam in which crooks pretend to represent someone from a government agency such as the IRS topped its list of consumer complaints.
"Scam artists are smart," said Eric Smith, a spokesman for the IRS. "They know you pay attention during tax season, and especially for those who file without paying, they know May and June is prime time for IRS billing notices. Scams are a year-round threat to taxpayers, though they can frequently peak around tax season and just after the filing deadline."
Smith said that fewer people are being successfully scammed, but the agency is still working closely with call-blocking providers and phone carriers to help identify phone scams and share information to help stop these calls.
"The phone scammers switch numbers frequently, so taxpayers should be aware they could see calls claiming to be from the IRS or other agencies," he said.
If you get a suspicious call or email, report it to firstname.lastname@example.org. In the subject line, write: "IRS Phone Scam." For more information, search on the IRS website for "Report Phishing and Online Scams."
You can also file a complaint at Fraud.org, which is operated by the National Consumers League.
- "You got a refund by mistake." Cybercriminals have increasingly turned to stealing people's data from tax professionals and businesses. The stolen information includes victims' routing and bank account numbers. The crooks then file a fraudulent tax return that results in a refund. The money is direct deposited into the unsuspecting taxpayers' real bank account. Then comes the con. The taxpayer gets a menacing recorded telephone call or message demanding the refund back.
- "You must pay your tax bill with a gift card." People targeted by this scam are told to go to a major retail store such as Best Buy, Target or Walmart and buy gift cards. Scammers may also ask you to get a gift card from Amazon, iTunes or Google Play.
Once the cards are purchased, the victim is told to call back a number and provide the card's activation code. Sometimes the scammers direct taxpayers to go to multiple stores so as not to raise the suspicion of an observant cashier who may question the purchase of so many high-value gift cards.
Greenberg said to look for the following red flags to help you determine whether you might be the target of a tax scam:Comment on this story
- The IRS does not call you on the phone. The IRS will first send you a notice by U.S. mail.
- The IRS does not leave menacing messages. The agency's employees will not threaten you with arrest.
- The IRS does not tell you to use a gift card for an unpaid tax bill. The agency will not demand a specific payment method.
- The IRS does not call immediately after Tax Day.
"Share this information with your friends, neighbors, church members or at community events," Greenberg said.
These tax swindles are sophisticated, relentless and ever-evolving. So, don't let your guard down — even after you've filed your return.