Given the prevalence of tax scams, it’s likely that you have received at least one contact from someone who claims to be an IRS representative telling you that unless you pay your taxes—and pay promptly—you are going to be subject to punishment such as fines, jail time, or even worse.

Depending on the nature of the contact you receive, it can be difficult to discern whether it really is a request from the IRS. This is especially true if you are behind on your tax payments and are expecting that the IRS may indeed contact you.

To help you spot the difference between a legitimate IRS contact and a tax scam, here’s a quick checklist to reference:

The IRS usually makes first contact through regular mail delivered by the United States Postal Service

If the IRS wants to talk to you, they will almost always send you a written notice via snail mail before any other method. An exception to this may occur if you have not responded to any of the IRS attempts to contact you via mail and you have an overdue tax bill, a delinquent tax return or a delinquent employment tax payment.

In these cases, or if your freelance business is part of an audit or a criminal investigation, the IRS may pay you an in-person visit if other methods including phone calls or emails have gone unanswered.

Don’t respond to requests unless specifically instructed to do so by the IRS

The IRS will never ask you to call them immediately or respond to a request with sensitive financial or personal information. Generally, if a response is needed, you will receive a written letter with specific instructions about what you need to provide. Your response will often be required to be made via postal mail or fax.

Remember, the IRS is serious—but they don’t make immediate payment demands

Any time you receive a call, text or email demanding immediate payment using a specific payment method like a prepaid debit card, gift card or wire transfer, your “scam antennae” should go up. The IRS will mail a bill to any taxpayer who owes taxes prior to using other forms of contact.

Even if they do call or email you, they will never demand that you have to pay immediately.

The IRS will not threaten you

As a taxpayer, you have rights—and the IRS is respectful of them. They will advise you of your rights if they call or visit you and they will never threaten you.

If someone claiming to be from the IRS contacts you and threatens to get the police, immigration officers or other law enforcement representatives involved, you should stop communicating with them and report the activity to the appropriate officials, namely:

  • For phone scams, contact the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration using the IRS Impersonation Scam Reporting web page. You can also call 800-366-4484.
  • If you feel you are being harassed by tax scam calls, you can contact the Federal Trade Commission via the FTC Complaint Assistant on FTC.gov.
  • Unsolicited emails claiming to be from the IRS, or an IRS-related entity such as the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System, can be reported to the IRS at phishing@irs.gov.

IRS representatives carry official IDs—ask for them

If you do get a legitimate visit from the IRS, the representative will always provide two forms of official credentials. These are known as a “pocket commission” and a HSPD-12 card. HSPD-12 is the government standard for secure and reliable forms of identification for federal employees and contractors.

As a taxpayer, you have the right to see these credentials, and you can verify the information on the HSPD-12 card by calling a dedicated IRS telephone number, which a true IRS employee will be able to provide to you.

You will not be arrested by the IRS for not paying

By law, the IRS cannot have you arrested on the spot for not paying a tax bill, and they also cannot revoke your driver’s license, business licenses, or immigration status. However, scammers will often use these punishments as a way to get their victims to comply with their illegal schemes.

The IRS will not ask you to make payments to other entities

All federal tax payments are made only to the United States Treasury Department. Checks are made payable to United States Treasury. You should never make checks for tax payments payable to anyone other than this entity. For state or local taxes, be sure to verify the appropriate payee for taxes prior to writing any checks.

Whatever form an IRS scam takes, being the victim of one is costly and time-consuming. That’s why it’s so important to be vigilant, to trust your instincts, and to keep in mind the checklist above so that you can be sure that you are not intimidated or bullied into paying a fake tax bill or providing sensitive information to a criminal.

If you are still unsure after you receive a supposed IRS contact, take the time to verify it with the appropriate authorities, it just may save you from being scammed.

Jonathan Medows is a New York City based CPA who specializes in taxes and business issues for freelancers and self-employed individuals across the country. He offers a free consultation to members of Freelancer’s Union and a monthly email newsletter covering tax, accounting and business issues to freelancers on his website, www.cpaforfreelancers.com, which also features a new blog, how-to articles, and a comprehensive freelance tax guide.

Jonathan is happy to provide an initial consultation to freelancers. To qualify for a free consultation you must be a member of the Freelancers Union and mention this article upon contacting him. Please note that this offer is not available Jan. 1 through April 18 and covers a general conversation about tax responsibilities of a freelancer and potential deductions. These meetings do not include review of self-prepared documents, review of self-prepared tax returns, or the review of the work of other preparers. The free meeting does not include the preparation or review of quantitative calculations of any sort. He is happy to provide such services but would need to charge an hourly rate for his time.