Our Pledge To You


IRS, other agencies warn of identity theft during holidays

Steve Bernas (left), David Marzahl, Ruby Haughton-Pitts, Lisa Madigan and James Robnett spoke about identity theft protecting on Friday, the last day of National Tax Security Awareness Week. Alexandra Olsen/For the Sun-Times

The worried voicemail came from a 62-year-old woman who said she had been “verbally bullied” over the phone by someone claiming to represent the IRS.

The caller told the woman there was an error on her tax return and if she did not pay $5,000 over the phone, authorities would be at her house within 45 minutes to arrest her.

The woman had no money, but the caller persuaded her to hand over the verification number on a gift card she had purchased.

When she called the Center for Economic Progress for help, it became clear she had been the victim of a common scam. But by calling the nonprofit group that helps low-income Chicagoans, she had taken a crucial step to protect herself in the future, according to David Marzahl, the center’s president.

“Unfortunately, this story is not unusual,” Marzahl said. “In fact, every week we get at least one or two calls from a taxpayer who is facing some type of fraud or other rip-off.”

Marzahl and representatives of the IRS, AARP of Illinois, Better Business Bureau of Chicago and Northern Illinois, and Illinois attorney general’s office say the best way to avoid scams this tax filing season is to contact the agency in question and ask for help.

Fake IRS calls are not the only way  scammers find potential victims.

The 2015 tax filing season saw a 400 percent surge in “phishing” emails, according to James Robnett, special agent in charge at the IRS’s Criminal Investigation Chicago Field Office.

It’s becoming harder to tell whether these emails, websites and phone calls are legitimate, Robnett said.

Taxpayers should take the time to examine, identify and avoid unsolicited emails. Taxpayers should be suspicious of any unsolicited emails that contain attachments or links — and think twice about clicking.

“We know that scammers are sophisticated, and they’re constantly changing their identities and tactics to remain anonymous,” Robnett said. “This is why it is crucial for taxpayers to be informed, recognize the signs of tax-related identity theft and other scams and know what to do if they are targeted.”

He and the other agency representatives said taxpayers shouldn’t trust their caller ID because of “spoofing,” which occurs when scammers change their caller ID to appear legitimate.

When someone tells you to do something quickly, that’s a major tip off you’re being ripped off, said Steve Bernas, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau.

He said the IRS would never contact a taxpayer and demand a payment in this way.

“If you get a call and somebody claims to be from the IRS and claims that you owe tax money, the best thing for you to do, truthfully, is to hang up the phone,” Attorney General Lisa Madigan said.

She also said taxpayers should never pay for anything over the phone or give out personal information.

Madigan urged those who are concerned about such calls or who have been scammed to contact the attorney general’s office or the IRS, which offers a tax fraud hotline at (800) 829-0433.

“You need to get off the phone and get in contact with people who can actually tell you if there is a legitimate problem,” she said. “We are always happy to answer your questions because it is so much easier for us to prevent you from being scammed then it is for us to get your money back after you’ve been scammed.”

Learn more about how to avoid scams by checking out AARP’s Fraud Watch Network, the Better Business Bureau’s Scam Tracker and the IRS’ expanded safeguards for tax filing season.