By Kay Bell for Bankrate.com
Misery might well love company, but not when it comes to a pervasive tax scam.
Last November, the Internal Revenue Service warned that con artists pretending to be IRS agents were calling people across the country, telling them that they owed taxes and must pay using a prepaid debit card or wire transfer. The scammers then threatened those who refused to pay with arrest, deportation (many of the targeted victims were immigrants) or loss of a business or driver's license.
Apparently the word didn't get out widely enough. That phone scam has become the largest tax scam ever, according to the government watchdog office that keeps an eye on the IRS.
20,000 victims and counting
"This is the largest scam of its kind that we have ever seen," said J. Russell George, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, or TIGTA, in a statement about the crime.
George said TIGTA has received reports of more than 20,000 scam calls. More distressing, the inspector general reports that thousands of victims have collectively handed over more than $1 million to the crooks.
TIGTA issued its warning not just because of the scope of the scam, but also because tax-related crimes increase during filing season.
"The increasing number of people receiving these unsolicited calls from individuals who fraudulently claim to represent the IRS is alarming," George said. "At all times, and particularly during the tax-filing season, we want to make sure that innocent taxpayers are alert to this scam so they are not harmed by these criminals."
Don't become a victim
Tax scams pop up year-round. Regardless of whether it's January, April or August, you can take steps to protect yourself.
First, be suspicious.
The real IRS usually first contacts people by mail, not by phone, about unpaid taxes. And, says the tax agency, its agents won't ask for payment using a prepaid debit card or wire transfer. Neither will the IRS request your credit card number over the phone.
Always do your due diligence before making any payments.
Although con artists often are able to display on caller ID information that indicates it's the IRS on the phone, double-check.
If you do owe or think you might owe federal taxes, call the IRS at (800) 829-1040. IRS representatives can help you verify your tax liability and answer your payment questions.
If you don't owe taxes, report the incident to TIGTA at (800) 366-4484. Also file a complaint noting it's about an IRS telephone scam with the Federal Trade Commission at FTC.gov.
A little bit of caution can help keep you from joining the phone-scam victim list.
This article was originally posted on Bankrate.com.