The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration is pursuing fraudsters posing as IRS agents who call to harass taxpayers about fictitious tax debts, calling them back to warn them about their criminal activity and getting the phone company to shut them down.

TIGTA said Thursday it has gone on counteroffensive against the scammers, but is warning taxpayers to stay vigilant against them this tax season.

“Without question, TIGTA’s efforts have impeded these criminals’ ability to victimize taxpayers over the past few months,” TIGTA Inspector General J. Russell George said in a statement.

He noted that TIGTA’s four-part strategy to thwart callers is working. “These efforts are producing results,” said George. “Where the perpetrators used to be able to get a victim every 40 to 50 calls, now they must make 300 to 400 attempts to claim a victim.”

TIGTA’s counteroffensive consists of: 1) using an autodialer to call the scammers to advise them that their activity is criminal and to cease and desist; 2) working with telephone companies to shut down the telephone numbers used to perpetrate these crimes; 3) publishing telephone numbers associated with the criminal activity on the Internet; and 4) engaging in outreach efforts with the public, the media, Congress, and other stakeholders to educate taxpayers about the scam. 

In January, TIGTA launched a series of public service announcements on YouTube. This month, the videos also became available on the IRS’s YouTube channel.

“Criminals view this scam as they do many others; it is a crime of opportunity,” George said in congressional testimony March 8. “While we plan on arresting and prosecuting more individuals, the scam will not stop until people stop paying the scammers money. Our best chance at defeating this crime is to educate people so they do not become victims in the first place. Every taxpayer we protect from this crime is a victory.”

TIGTA said it has received reports of more than 1 million contacts from scammers since October 2013 and has become aware of over 5,500 victims who have collectively paid approximately $29 million as a result of the scam in which criminals make unsolicited calls to taxpayers fraudulently claiming to be IRS officials and demanding that they send them cash via prepaid debit cards, money orders or wire transfers from their banks.

“If someone unexpectedly calls claiming to be from the IRS or in a new twist, the Treasury Department, and uses the threat of legal action if you do not pay immediately, that is a sign that it is not the IRS calling, and your cue to hang up,” said George. “Again, do not engage with these callers. If they call you, hang up the telephone.”

George noted the scam has hit taxpayers in every state. Callers claiming to be from the IRS tell intended victims they owe taxes and must pay using a pre-paid debit card, money order or a wire transfer. The scammers then threaten those who refuse to pay they will be charged with a criminal violation, a grand jury indictment, immediate arrest, deportation or loss of a business or driver’s license.

The IRS, however, generally first contacts people by mail—not by phone—about unpaid taxes and the IRS will not ask for payment using a prepaid debit card, a money order or a wire transfer. The IRS also will not ask for a credit card number or your bank information over the phone.

If taxpayers receive a call from someone claiming to be with the IRS asking for a payment, or credit card or bank account information, they should hang up and call the IRS at (800) 829-1040 if they think they may owe taxes. IRS workers can help with payment questions. If they do not owe taxes, they should fill out the “IRS Impersonation scam” form on TIGTA’s website, www.tigta.gov, or call TIGTA at (800) 366-4484. They can also file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission at www.FTC.gov, adding “IRS Telephone Scam” to the comments in the complaint.

TIGTA is encouraging taxpayers to beware of phone and email scams that use the IRS name. The IRS will never request personal or financial information by email, text, or any social media. Taxpayers should forward scam emails to phishing@irs.gov. They should not open any attachments or click on any links in those emails.