MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - The IRS itself always said it. Consumer advocates and regulators always said it. I've drilled it into your heads for 20 years as your local consumer advocate.
We've always said the IRS will never call you demanding payment. Period. I've shared this story about the IRS phone scam so many times, it's practically pop culture.
Leave it to our leaders in Washington to screw it all up.
In 2015, Congress passed legislation that authorizes the IRS to create a private debt collection program, starting later this spring. It authorizes the agency to partner with four private debt collectors to solicit delinquent taxpayers. They will initially issue written notices to delinquent taxpayers, but if those taxpayers do not respond, the private collectors will have the authority to -- you guessed it -- call, robo-call or text those taxpayers on behalf of the IRS and demand they make good on their debts.
Consumer advocates like me are concerned this will provide scammers a loophole to pose as these IRS private collection partners.They could potentially confuse honest taxpayers into thinking they owe money and fall for the very phone scam we've spent years training taxpayers to avoid.
"It's very frustrating," said Nancy Crawford, communications director for the Better Business Bureau of the Mid-South. "That's just another level of impersonation that could be perpetrated. The IRS themselves have said we would never call you as a first means of contact, we'll never call you and ask for payment, and now they're going to have people calling asking for payment."
The program's prospects for confusing consumers and for encouraging more impostors have particularly perturbed Angela Cowell of Frayser. Phishing calls and IRS impostors harass her so often, she's more her phone's goalie than its owner.
"They keep coming. I keep kicking them away," Cowell said. "But now if (IRS private debt collectors) can call, that means that the few who were doing it before are going to multiply. There will just be more confusion."
ConServe, Pioneer, Performant and CBE Group are the four debt collection agencies authorized to contact taxpayers on behalf of the IRS. Each is BBB-accredited with an A+ rating, according to bureau records. However, each has logged significant consumer complaints with the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. According to the agency's complaint database, CBE Group has logged 822 complaints about its debt collection calls and practices, followed by Performant (415), ConServe (273) and Pioneer (83), owned by Navient. None have resulted in disciplinary action.
IRS spokesperson Clay Sanford said none of the companies, nor the IRS, will call delinquent taxpayers without sending them written notices in the mail first. "Even with private debt collection, you shouldn't receive unexpected phone calls from the IRS demanding payment," Sanford said. "The IRS always sends several collection notices through the mail before making phone calls."
"Our advice is still the same: if you're not sure you're talking to the IRS -- if you haven't received that mail first -- hang up and call the IRS yourself," Crawford said.
Even better, do what I taught Angela Cowell: just stop answering calls you do not recognize on your caller ID. Remember, if you really owe back-taxes, the IRS, then one of its private debt collection partners will mail you a notice first -- not an email (the IRS never emails), but a honest-to-goodness paper letter. If you get a call, but you never got the letter, let it ring and leave it alone.