To a great extent the US has become host to a global network of cyber-fueled financial con artists. While scammers do not always differentiate between age groups, one group that is routinely targeted is seniors. According to the FBI, elder fraud results in about $3 billion in annual losses. In fact, that figure may be an underestimate because when a senior falls victim to fraud, statistics show s/he is less likely to report it out of shame or fear that family members will decide to take over their financial affairs, resulting in a loss of independence.

Scammers Posing As IRS Agents

Tax scams — particularly tax refund scams — are becoming one of the most prevalent ways thieves steal money and one’s identity. They collect funds posing as the IRS or charge for fake services. They file claims in your name, collecting a substantial government refund.

According to sources, among the top five tax scams seen this season are:

  • Phishing emails asking you to verify information, where scammers using threatening subject lines will claim to be from the IRS, demanding payment

What you should know: If you click on the link in a phishing email, you may be directed to a false website resembling the IRS, but the IRS will never contact you by email in the first place. It is always by snail mail and only after numerous attempts to reach you by mail fail, they may call. If you know you’ve never received any mail, no matter what they claim on the phone, immediately hang up.

  • Someone filing a tax return in your name — possibly based on information you’ve unknowingly provided through a phishing email

What you should know: In 2020, the IRS flagged 5.2 million tax returns as fraudulent. Criminals got someone’s name, social security number and date of birth. When they went to file their return, the IRS discovered one had already been filed, and likely a substantial refund received and deposited in the criminal’s account. You can avoid this by setting up an Identity Protection Pin (IP PIN). This is a new six-digit passcode each year to confirm your identity when you send in your return.

  • Ghost tax preparers who then steal your return

What you should know: A criminal posing as a tax preparer contacts you, offering to file your return, sometimes even for free. They then file a fraudulent return in your name, with false information, collecting the large refund they put in for. To prevent this, use a tax preparer with verifiable credentials and research them online. A referral from friends and family is even better.

  • You are notified — likely by email — that the IRS owes you an extra refund

What you should know: Again, the IRS will never contact you via email. Should you receive one saying the IRS has recalculated your return, and you are owed additional money, it will typically include a link on which you must click to confirm personal or financial information. This is another example of phishing, as the information goes directly to identity thieves.

  • Overdue payment scams

 What you should know: After you receive a direct deposit refund, you get a call or text from someone claiming to be from the IRS. Scam artists are so accomplished, the number on your caller ID will appear to belong to the IRS, but odds are it does not. Criminals will say your refund was too much and you need to return the extra money — usually via wire transfer or gift cards. This is a huge red flag as funds sent this way generally cannot be traced.

How to Avoid Falling for a Tax Fraud Scam

Again, the IRS traditionally uses the US mail for contact purposes — not the internet or phone where imposters claim to be IRS agents, often using threatening and intimidating tactics or other times appealing to the trust and graciousness that define older generations. Reasons for receiving a letter could include:

  • Having a balance due
  • A larger or smaller refund
  • The agency has a question about your tax return
  • They need to verify your identity
  • The agency needs additional information
  • The agency changed your tax return

Should you receive a letter, contact your tax preparer to verify the issue and determine the best way to respond. Overall, the best way to avoid tax fraud is never to respond to any attempts at solicitation, intimidation, or inquiries for personal information. You can also call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 and check out the IRS tax scams consumer alerts website to keep current on fraud.


“‘Tis the Season: Top 5 Tax Refund Scams That Target Seniors,” written by Beth Herman, Amada blog contributor. Thanks to Philip L. Liberatore, CPA for providing some source material.