In the past, getting a surprise call from someone purporting to be with the Internal Revenue Service was almost always a sign of a scam. True IRS agents typically were not allowed to call you out of the blue—even if you owe a lot of money to the feds.
But that’s about to change. Earlier this month, the IRS announced that it now intends to hire outside tax collectors to go after you if you owe taxes. This move will likely make it more difficult for you to tell when calls about overdue taxes are legitimate, and when they’re a scam.
Phone scams in which fraudsters pretend they’re with the IRS on the rise. The scam is so prevalent, in fact, that it tops the IRS’ “Dirty Dozen” list of tax scams for 2017. Overall, more than 10,000 victims have paid out $54 million to tax scams since October 2013, according to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration.
And you can bet fraudsters will attempt to take advantage of this new system. To protect yourself, understand these key elements of the IRS collection plan.
It targets older, unpaid tax debts.
The IRS’ new collaboration with tax collectors is targeting people with debts that are over two years old, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
The program, which was authorized under 2015 legislation, is an attempt to receive unpaid taxes that have gone into delinquency. In fact, the IRS says it loses $400 billion per year in unpaid taxes. Estimates from the congressional Joint Committee on Taxation show the program could bring in $2.4 billion over the next 10 years.
The program has launched with a few hundred taxpayers, the agency says, and then will expand later in spring and over the summer.
It shouldn't include any cold calls.
Even under the new system, there shouldn’t be surprise phone calls. “Unexpected and threatening calls out of the blue from someone saying they’re representing the IRS to collect a tax debt is a warning sign people should watch out for,” says IRS Commissioner John Koskinen.
The IRS says it will always contact you by letter first before transferring the debt to a collection agency. The letter from the IRS will list the name of the tax collection company assigned to your case, the amount you owe, and a taxpayer authentication number that is unique to you.
There's a limited group of companies you might hear from.
There are only four companies that the IRS has contracted with for this program. They are:
- CBE Group, based in Cedar Falls, Iowa
- Conserve, in Fairport, N.Y.
- Performant, in Livermore, Calif.
- Pioneer, in Horseheads, N.Y.
If the IRS does send your case to a tax collector, it will only be to one of these companies—no one else, and never more than one at a time. Once the IRS transfers your case to a collection company, the debt collector will also send you a letter in the mail before attempting to contact you by phone. So you should receive at least two letters—one from the IRS and one from the debt collection agency—with both confirming the details of the debt and listing the authentication number assigned to you.
If the case does progress to a phone call, these debt collectors are prohibited from using robocalls or pre-recorded messages to contact you after sending the initial notification, according to the FTC. It will always be a live operator, who will use the authentication number that was in your letters.
Your payment should still be to the IRS—no one else.
If a debt collection firm does legitimately contact you following the letters, the representative is authorized to discuss payment options, which may include setting up a payment agreement.
But you will never actually pay the company directly. Instead, representatives must direct you to either pay the IRS electronically, at IRS.gov/payments, or send the IRS a paper check, made out to the U.S. Treasury.
If a debt collector calls you about unpaid taxes and asks you to pay over the phone using a credit card, debit card or gift card, he or she is a scammer. In that case, hang up and report the incident on the Treasury Inspector General’s website or, alternatively, call 1-800-366-4484.
You have rights, even if you owe money.
Even if you do owe back taxes, debt collectors must follow the law—and that means they cannot harass you. Under federal law, debt collectors cannot call you before 8 a.m. and after 9 p.m., unless you agree to those hours. And they can’t contact you at work if you tell them you can’t receive calls there.
They also can’t threaten that you’ll be arrested if you don’t pay your debt.
If you are contacted and you’re not sure whether you owe money, you’re entitled to ask them for a written “validation notice,” which will say what you owe and to whom. You can also check your IRS account balance online at IRS.gov/balancedue.
One final note: Even if an IRS-authorized debt collector does seem to be harassing you, don't assume that you're being scammed. One of the companies hired by the IRS, Pioneer Credit Recovery, has had issues in the past. (The Department of Education dismissed Pioneer in 2015 after it found the agency’s debt collectors made “materially inaccurate representations” to borrowers about their loan.)
If the debt collector is breaking any of the above rules, you will still likely have to pay the debt—but you should also report the company to your state Attorney General’s office, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.