The Internal Revenue Service sends out warnings every year about the ways that crooks trick people out of their tax refunds. These news releases make for some of the most entertaining reading available from public affairs offices.
I read a lot of government news releases, so trust me on this.
In the latest batch, the I.R.S. tells us that many swindles begin with a threatening phone call from the agency. Or, rather, a call that’s supposed to be from the I.R.S.
This should be your first clue, however, that something is wrong: The I.R.S. doesn’t call you. It just doesn’t reach out to people that way. They are kind of like that Jimmy Buffett song, “If the phone doesn’t ring, it’s me.”
They reach out, almost always, through the mail. After all, somebody’s got to keep the United States Postal Service in business. In the rare instances when the agency might call about an overdue tax return, the agency wants you to know, you will have received letters first.
Let’s review. Someone has just called you on the phone and claims to be from the I.R.S. What do you do?
You have the agency’s permission to say something rude and hang up. (I’m inferring that — I.R.S. news releases aren’t quite that entertaining.) Because once a conversation starts, people can find themselves doing strange things.
Take Michelle Albitz, a Pennsylvania woman who lost more than $10,000 to an ersatz I.R.S. caller. According to the account in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, a gentleman on the phone said she would be arrested if she didn’t pay her back taxes. She withdrew the money from her local bank and, following the instructions from her caller, went to retail stores and bought gift cards. She then read the card information to the swindler over the phone.
Who knew the I.R.S. worked this way? With gift cards?
Oh, that’s right. It doesn’t.
Those I.R.S. people aren’t like that. They don’t call, they don’t send email, they don’t demand money from you in Instagram posts. And while David Kautter, the acting commissioner of the I.R.S., is surely somewhat hunky in his own nerd-eriffic way, he will not contact you on Tinder and tell you that you have beautiful eyes and that you need to pay some back taxes. Not even with gift cards.
The gift card caper that snared Ms. Albitz was unusual, but scammers trying to extract fake tax payments aren’t a new thing. That’s why it is refreshing, in a perverse way, to see crooks coming up with something a little more inventive lately, like this twist on another old fraud.
The perpetrators fill out fake tax returns in your name, using your actual information. Then they have the I.R.S. deposit the money in your own bank account. After that, the scammers call you up and say that there has been a mistake, and you got a refund you shouldn’t have, and they’re from a collection agency. Would you mind just sending the money to them?
The I.R.S. has its own official procedures for turning in erroneous refunds, and — have I mentioned this? — they don’t involve agents calling you.
Not only will tax agents not call you, the I.R.S. makes it painfully clear that it would rather you not call, either. The signals aren’t even subtle. In a recent news release about “early filing season myths,” a number of the purported myths come down to: Don’t call us. Not as in “Don’t call us, we’ll call you,” but “Don’t call. We mean it.”
Take myth No. 4, which is about whether calling the I.R.S. will get you a better refund date. Answer: No. Or No. 5: “Calling the I.R.S. Is the Most Convenient Way to Get Answers to Tax or Refund Questions.” Again, nope, nope, nope. Because baby, they’re just not that into you.
I like the agency’s honesty but object to the folks at the I.R.S. calling these things “myths.” Myths are things people actually believe. Here’s a real myth: that anyone wants to call the I.R.S.
Normal people dread having contact with the agency, aside from sending in their tax return, and, if they are fortunate, getting a refund.
If you’ve ever been in actual conversation with this agency, it probably means something bad has happened, such as getting a letter about a problem with your taxes, and you’ve had to follow up. That situation is likely to get worse: Once you start calling the agency to clear things up, well, it can be an endless cycle of fix-it calls followed by dunning I.R.S. notices demanding that you fix the thing you just fixed, with more calls to clear things up.
Frankly, dear reader, those so-called I.R.S. myths didn’t sound much like myths to me. For example, the title of one listed by the agency was this: “Ordering a tax transcript a ‘secret way’ to get a refund date.” That does not sound like anything anyone has said to me ever, even if you interpret the sentence to mean that people use their refunds to go out on a date and the agency will help hook you up. (There’s that Tinder issue again!) By the way, Mr. Kautter, may I say you’re looking very good today?
No, if you’re going to promise myths, my I.R.S. friends, go large. Try myths people might actually believe, for example, the claim that “Bitcoins are untraceable.” (It’s complicated but, in fact, they are traceable.)
Then there’s the old saying that nothing is certain but death and taxes. I always thought it was true, but it has clearly moved into myth territory: Death is still pretty certain, sure. But taxes? With all the revisions to the tax code, a lot of people are very uncertain. And, above a certain income level, you can bet that they won’t be paying much if any tax at all.
The truly rich, of course, know they don’t need to call the I.R.S. They just call their favorite members of Congress. Or, more likely, they have their people do it.
And those calls get taken.