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Start of tax season 2020 is prime time for scammers

Scammers are opportunists. They take advantage of certain events such as natural disasters or certain times of year, which is why you need to be on high alert for cons that target taxpayers now that the 2020 tax season has started.

And the cons have become incredibly sophisticated. With so many data breaches, criminals have enough information about you to make their schemes believable.

“I received a robocall with a recording telling me that my Social Security number had been suspended for suspicious activity,” one reader recently wrote. “I was told to press one for more information. I pressed one and was connected with a man who confirmed my full name and address. I kept asking him what this was about, but he said he needed to confirm my confidential information and identity. He asked for the last four digits of my Social Security number, and I gave it to him. Honestly, I was scared and didn’t know if this was fraud or not.”

Fraudsters use people’s fear of the IRS to steal their money or identity. Many readers report that their retired parents, who can least afford to be victimized because of their limited retirement income, have been scared into sending money to con artists who convince the retirees that they have outstanding tax bills.

“A couple of months ago, I got a call with a recorded voice saying that I owed back taxes and that unless I stayed on the line to talk to ‘a representative,’ my Social Security number would be suspended and a warrant would be issued for my arrest,” one reader wrote. “I already have a payment plan in effect for back taxes that I owe, so I knew this was a scam.”

As shrewd as you think you are, the scammers are smarter. So, beware of the following schemes.

IRS impostor scams. No, the IRS will not just call you out of the blue about a tax debt. You will get a letter, or several letters, that indicate there’s a problem. Several years ago, I received a notice that I owed the IRS $12,255 (including interest and penalty). It was a mistake, and I wrote about how I resolved the issue. What I didn’t get — ever — was a call demanding that I buy gift cards to pay the debt. The IRS would never request payment via Google Play, iTunes or any other type of gift card. I also didn’t have a so-called IRS agency threaten to send the police to my home if I didn’t immediately wire cash to the caller.

The refund scheme. Hackers steal people’s data from tax professionals and use the information to file fraudulent returns. But here’s the twist: Using the stolen bank account information, the cybercriminals instruct the IRS to deposit the refund into the victims’ own accounts. They then contact people pretending to be from a collection agency or the IRS, claiming the refund was deposited in error and demanding the money be returned.

Social Security number scams. In this scheme, people are getting calls or automated messages that say their Social Security numbers have been “suspended” because of suspicious activity. It’s nonsense. No such thing can happen. But people are told that to “reactivate” their number, they must pay a fee or buy gift cards. The Federal Trade Commission said there has been a significant surge in scams in which impostors claim they are calling on behalf of a government agency such as the Social Security Administration.

Ghost preparers. There are unethical tax return preparers whom the IRS refers to as “ghost preparers.” Notice this huge red flag: Your paid preparer won’t sign your paper return or refuses to digitally sign it. The IRS says anyone you pay to prepare your return, or who assists in preparing it, must have a Preparer Tax Identification Number, or PTIN. “Paid preparers must sign and include their PTIN on the return,” the IRS says. Don’t use a preparer who bases your fee on a percentage of your refund. Definitely run — and report the preparer — if he or she encourages you to lie about your income or your deductions to increase the amount of your refund.

Learn how to protect yourself, and share this information with people you know. Be careful out there this tax season.

Reader Question of the Week

If you have a retirement question, send it to In the subject line, put “Question of the Week.”

Q: When one spouse dies, would the surviving spouse get half of the deceased’s plus his or her own Social Security for the remainder or his or her life?

A: You won’t collect two checks. There’s a lot of confusion about spousal benefits when it comes to Social Security.

Social Security has a guide to survivor benefits that you should read even if you are divorced.

“You will not receive a survivor benefit in addition to your own retirement benefit; Social Security will pay the higher of the two amounts,” AARP Social Security Resource Center explains.

Here’s how the survivor benefit works for a spouse, according to the Social Security Administration.

— Your widow or widower may be able to get full benefits at full retirement age. The full retirement age for survivors is age 66 for people born in 1945 to 1956. The full retirement age will gradually increase to age 67 for people born in 1962 or later.

— Your widow or widower can get reduced benefits as early as age 60.

— If your surviving spouse is disabled, benefits can begin as early as age 50. For more information on widows, widowers and other survivors, visit

— Widows or widowers can get benefits at any age if they take care of your child younger than age 16 or disabled, who’s receiving Social Security benefits.

For more information about survivor benefits, call 800-772-1213 (TTY 800-325-0778). You can speak to a Social Security representative between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Monday through Friday or visit a local Social Security office.

Live Chat

This week’s chat is canceled, but please join me next Thursday, Feb. 6, at noon (Eastern time) for a live discussion about your money.

My guest will be Melody Thornton, a certified public accountant and partner at Fitzgerald & Company, LLP. She is the chair of the statewide committee on taxation for the California Society of CPAs. She will join me to take your questions about tax season 2020.

Retirement Rants and Raves

Your thoughts: What concerns you about the impostor scams?

I’m also interested in your experiences or concerns about retirement or aging. You can rant or rave. Send your comments to Please include your name, city and state. In the subject line put “Retirement Rants and Raves.”

In last week’s newsletter, I asked: Tell me what you think of the ideas from 2020 presidential candidates on how they would fix Social Security.

Kevin Seward of Nebraska wrote, “More coverage should be given to the extremely unfair practice of taxing Social Security income.”

“I’m sick of so many people saying that the rich need to pay their fair share of taxes, especially Social Security taxes, despite not being ‘rich’ myself,” wrote Keith Russell of Ashland, Ore. “For anybody to say that the rich need to pay more in Social Security taxes when the benefits and thus the taxes are capped, just represents a steal-from-the-rich-and-give-to-the-poor transfer.”