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Color of Money Live: How to avoid those IRS scams

Aug 25, 2016

Join Washington Post nationally syndicated personal finance columnist Michelle Singletary for an online discussion.

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Glad you could join me.

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The reader from two weeks ago whose 4 year old twins received credit card offers should check their credit scores because that's a sign of stolen identities. This is from TransUnion website: How do you know if your child's identity has been stolen? Your child begins to receive suspicious mail, like pre-approved credit cards and other financial offers normally sent to adults, in his or her own name.

I remember that question too. 

You are so right. 


My husband & I each carry health insurance for our family of 5. Every single time we go to an appointment, during the "check in" process, the staff insists on verifying the insurance coverage. So, I produce both insurance cards, and they are copied front and back, then, scanned into some machine on the staff's desk. I am asked "Which is Primary? Which is Secondary?" Every. Single. Time. Then, we are allowed to see the doctor/dentist/Indian Chief. Then, the bills come. The staff has billed the Primary, received payment for that portion. Instead of billing the Secondary (remember, they already have ALL of this information in their hands, multiple times!!!!!), they have sent a bill for the balance to US, and, at the same time, sent the account to some COLLECTION AGENCY! So, the Collection Agency starts calling. Daily. I ask them if the Secondary Insurance Company has been billed yet. No answer or "We are just the collection agency ma'am." Then, I have to contact the Secondary Insurance company and send them copies of the various statements and make the calls to them, only to confirm what I already know (They have NEVER heard of this visit to Dr. XYZ, so, they never paid.) Once they are notified, the payment is made. Guess what? We do not owe anything! Because the TWO insurance companies paid as they were supposed to once made aware of the bills! Then, We have to notify the Doctor and send documentation to the Credit Bureaus, to correct this unnecessary error. It happens ALL OF THE TIME!!!! Why do they insist on having the insurance information if they are not going to use it????? How can you be so flippin' lazy as to not send a bill to the company that is going to pay your fees? It should be mandatory for every doctor to learn how to get paid. Not leave it on the patient's door. Either (1) do not bother gathering the insurance information, only to partially utilize it; or (2) leave it totally on the patient to do the billing after the appointment. Any suggestions on improving the process Michelle???

I love a good vent. And this is the place.

Do what you can to meet with the billing person for the providers you use. Talk to them about their procedure. Perhaps they don't have the staff to do a two-part billing process. They should but clearly they don't.

Or frankly, take the matter into your own hands. It's work, but after the visit get the bill right away and send what would be owed to the secondary insurance company.

I know.


But perhaps you can skip the whole process of dealing with a collection company.

I am 65 years old and not working. I had worked 6 years and contributed to SS during those 6 years. Now, what should I do to be able to collect Social Security Benefits? Best regards, M. S. Sabbagh

Please contact the Social Security Administration. You need to find out if you have enough working credits to get benefits. Or if you were married for at least 10 years you might be entitled to benefits based on your spouse's record.

Call Social Security and make an apt to talk to someone about your case. 

Use this link to find a local office near you

I appreciate your articles, advice, and most of all the Chat. Yes, I have had the robo calls for the IRS scammers--just not a live caller yet. However, I feel the most vulnerable to the IRS scams, are the population "over 65". These are the folks, who are more likely not to be "online, hooked up to social media at all." I share this from my own family's perspective, I have two siblings, (in their 60's) and aging parents, parents-in-law who still have a landline without caller id; no internet access, or social media interest or access at all. They utilize print media, ie the daily newspaper; and local/national tv news, and radio; only one of these persons I describe has cable access. Social media will only work if their relatives spread the news to them. Our local news and radio has warned folks about the scammers; maybe not to the extent you are in your articles, but they are do have a campaign about it -- and this kind of thing does seem to go around every so many years, but it seems like now, it just keeps going--it hasn't really stopped for several months.

Read Michelle's columns on IRS scams:

Aug. 25 - That is NOT the IRS Calling You!

Aug. 23 - In the face of IRS impersonators, vive la resistance!

Aug. 20 - Just hang up on phone scammers

That's why in my electronic newsletter today That is NOT the IRS Calling You! (link provided), I'm asking each and every one of you to tell someone you know about this scam. If you have elderly friends or relatives call them TODAY and tell them. Start a phone conga line if you will. We collective have to help the gov't officials get the word out. And if you are online please, please tweet or post on your Facebook page the columns listed. I'm very concerned that a lot of people are falling for his particular scam. And the more people fall for it, the more others will to because there is major money to be scammed. 

Use the hashtag #StopIRSImpersonators 

I would just find a new doctor if the current one can't seem to handle billing properly.

While a good recommendation, I know how hard it is to find medical folks you like.

I drive FAR to see my dentist. Love him and his staff (no billing issues EVER). In fact, a coding error (because we switch to my husband's coverage) caused some bills to be kicked back. They NEVER EVER hounded me. 

As I said, get in good with the billing folks. 

Look, if ANYONE asks you for payment with iTunes gift cards, Greendot cards, etc. it's a scam. That's not how legitimate transactions work. These scammers wouldn't be able to make any money if people would be more aware of the warning signs.

Yes, so true. The more people they con, the longer the con stays around.

But I get why this one is working so well. People are scared of the IRS. I'm scared to mess with them! 

So a call saying you owe the IRS turns off your spider senses. 

All people think is IRS might take my house or get into my bank account. 

We have to help get the word out. Tell everybody you know. 

My elderly MIL called frantically one night about 6 weeks ago. She was in a panic that someone was going to arrest her the next morning because of an outstanding $7500 IRS bill. It took lots of reassurances and promises that my husband or I would come over if anyone showed up at the door before she could sleep that night. Yes, the pick on the elderly but also immigrants. They threatened to deport my MIL who has been a citizen for 50 years but it scared her.

I'm so so sorry. It's a story I've been hearing often since I started writing more about this. 


There should be a special place in hell for these folks!


My friend, "Ashley", asked me to be a reference for her friend, "Sarah", whom I faintly know. Sarah's name comes up every now and then in conversation and we all went to middle school together but I wasn't friends with Sarah then. Sarah's mother and my mom were friends for a while but they had a fall out and while they're civil now when they run into each other, the friendship is long gone. But we as kids back then were never friends. Sarah has never been too friendly with me but was also never outright rude, except for a few 'sarcastic' remarks but it never really fazed me -- although I know more than I care to know about her. She asked Ashley to ask me to be a reference for her and while I gave my friend Ashley a flat no. Ashley also made me feel bad and told it was "just a name on a paper and they probably won't even call you." I've vouched for people I faintly knew in my early career and learned quickly that that was a giant NO. Yet, I can't help but feel a little guilty. Am I wrong?

You are NOT wrong.

Your reputation is on the line and that means something. Ashley isn't much of a friend if she doesn't get that.

I'm very careful about references. And I love that here at the Post they value our opinion about people so that makes me ultra careful in recommending someone. 

So don't feel guilty. 

What are some things I should consider when thinking about refinancing my mortgage?

I'm about to close on my refinance tomorrow!!

2.75% fixed 15 yr. 

My husband and I are on a mission to pay off our mortgage before we retire. 

So here's what I looked at

-- How long we planned to stay in the house because we wanted to make sure any savings were capture. If we were to move soon, couldn't really realize savings due to loan costs. In other words, look for the break even point. 

-- Fees. I looked at them carefully and challenged some I thought were crazy. $100 for carrier. Don't think so. Pay attention to junk fees. 

-- Loans cost money. Someone told me they refinanced with NO money. Not possible. The mortgage companies or broker makes money. You may not see it upfront but no loan cost nothing. So pay attention to the loan documents. Many people roll the cost of the loan int the loan so it appears it didn't cost anything.

-- How far along are you in your current mortgage. If you are 10 years away from paying it off, getting a 30 resets your loan. I don't care if the rate is 1% makes no sense to me because a lot of the interest is front loaded.

-- Don't just focus on the interest rate. See answer above.

I know that the people who fall for this scam are likely less sophisticated about financial matters, but I am not unsophisticated in financial matters and those calls still give me a jolt - got two of them on my birthday this year. That being said, there are a few things you can do to reassure yourself that the call isn't real. First, remember that the IRS will always contact you about any issue by regular mail. Second, make sure the IRS has your correct address on file by making sure you file your taxes using the right address and/or making an address change using Form 8822. (Oh, and if you are my sister-in-law, actually check the mailbox once in a while.) If you know the IRS knows where you are, and you didn't get a letter from them, the call can be safely ignored and/or reported, depending on your preference.

Love your advice. Been giving out the same the last several columns. Crack at sister-in-law LOL! Also smart folks have been falling for this scam too. For exactly the reason you state. The con artists are getting really good at this. In fact, one person nearly conned someone by saying the address they had on file was wrong and the letter came back, making the person almost believe BECAUSE we've been telling folks the IRS will first contact you by mail. 

So you see the crooks are evolving their con. 



If I read your post correctly the doctor bills primary insurance and receives all but say $50. They then send you a bill for $50 but at the same time send it to a collection agency? How is this even legal? You should have 30 days to either pay or resubmit to secondary insurance before a collection agency. The billing office could be doing serious damage to your credit rating by constantly reporting you as defaulting on bills. Save every single piece of paper and if needed get a lawyer.

I did wonder about that too. It could be they have outsourced collections as in collecting on current bills not people who can't pay. 

Everyone needs Caller ID. My elderly mother was not willing to pay for it, and I finally took over payment of her phone bill and signed up for Caller ID. Then I was able to convince her to only pick up the phone if she knew who it was, and let the rest of the calls go to the answering machine.

Good solution for you. But not everyone has an angel like you

Or some folks may just not want it. My grandmother refused to give up her old rotary phone -- way back in the day. 

So again, hammer into folks don't pay. Hang up.

Michelle, I remember you responding to some questions about "whether you had seen that story" (May 2016, Secret Shame of Middle Class Americans.") You responded that you planned to read it, but I never saw your reaction, if you published one. What expenses do you find that people are most open to cutting and/or most resistant to cutting?

I love that you folks had history with this chat. 

I did read the piece. So sorry I didn't circle back in full. Think I mentioned it. But overall, I appreciated the person's honesty that despite his good income he overspent trying to provide a certain life for him and his family. I really do believe most people don consciously say: "I'm going to overspend and run myself into debt." 

They slide to this taking vacations, eating out, creating comfortable living spaces. 

So most open to cutting

-- Eating out. Or least they say that. But then when I circle back with them they cut it out a bit and then slide right back when life gets busy

Most resistant to cutting

-- Auto expenses or rather devoting so much of their budget to an asset that depreciates the moment you drive it off the lot. People are so afraid of breaking down on the road they talk themselves into staying in car loans. 

-- For many families -- usually in areas like where I live DVM -- private school education. Really $12,000 to $15,000 for preschool. They color! 

Raise your hand if you went to public school? Keep it up if you are smart, got a good job and somehow made it in life. 

Just saying. 

This has happened to me with a particular sort-of subordinate (different group but lower-ranked) who put me down as a reference. I did my best to be honest with her first job application, but it was apparent I barely knew her. When she asked to put my name down again, I asked her not to, telling her that I would only hurt her efforts because I couldn't give detailed positive anecdotes -- I had no anecdotes. She acquiesced, and all was fine. So, you might tell both "Ashley" and "Sarah" that -- that naming a reference who barely knows you can really hurt your efforts in getting a job.

Good strategy!

Hi Michelle, and thanks for taking my question. This week, I received a letter from an agency called the State of Maryland Central Collection Unit. They are claiming that I didn't have car insurance for a period of 2 months back in 2008, and that I somehow owe them $500 as a result. They are threatening to withhold my Maryland state refund, but I haven't been a Maryland resident since then! I had changed my car registration from Maryland to New York during that time, and was covered the entire time through Geico. However, I haven't had Geico insurance in 5 years and don't even own the car anymore! Have you heard of this type of thing? Why would they wait 8 years to ask about this - is this legit? I've never received any paperwork about this before. And how can I prove I was covered and don't owe this money? I'm not sure I have paperwork from 8 years ago. Thank you.

Sounds like a scam to me!

Although did a quick search and saw Maryland does have a unit called "Central Collection Unit"

Independently look for the number -- not any in the letter and see if this is legit. Contact the insurance companies and see if they have in their system your coverage history to prove you were in fact covered if this is legit.

I've received these calls too! The first one I ever got was a live call and even from a Washington, D.C. area code. This was before I ever heard of the IRS scam and I definitely had more than a few moments of fear. However, I looked up the exchange and it was the opposite side of town from any IRS building--that plus a little more Googling turned up articles about the scam and helped me sleep that night. But it made me realize that even though I am extremely skeptical of anything that looks like a scam, I could easily have fallen for this one!

Exactly. Now multiply your fear for someone who isn't computer savvy enough to research online.

Hi Michelle - I love your chats! You inspired me to get serious about getting rid of my grad school student loan debt as soon as possible (debt is not a pet - LOL). Over the past year, I've paid down about $49,000 worth of student loan debt and have about $10,000 to go. This was through a combination of using $21,000 I had saved for a house down payment (I'll rebuild once the loan is done, not in a hurry to buy right now), $4,700 I received when my car was totaled :( (I had it for 9 years and it was a 2003 Hyundai that was paid off a few years ago - luckily I can walk/bike to work and don't need a car, plus my boyfriend bought one), a tax return, a bonus, and a decent raise. I've been putting this money straight to the loan so I don't even think about having it. I feel very fortunate to be in this situation with a good income, but I'm so anxious to get rid of the loan for good (and write in to tell you once I do)! I have no other debt. My question is whether I'm too aggressively paying it off (currently paying $2,000 a month) and should be using some of the money for other things. I am a 32 year old federal employee who contributes 5% to my TSP with 5% match. I have an ok emergency fund - I guess it could be better but my job is pretty secure. I plan to add to it once the loan is paid off. I have $1,000 in my life happens fund and about $1,700 in vacation/fun fund. I realized I haven't contributed to my Roth IRA in over a year. Can I wait until my student loan is paid off (hopefully by February at this rate) and contribute to my Roth IRA for 2016 in March and April 2017 (I know you have until tax day)? Are the money I'm going to save in interest on the loan (mostly paying principal now) and the money I'd make in the Roth IRA between now and March basically the same? Those things being equal, I'd like to get rid of the loan first! Thanks so much for your advice.

Keep doing my friend what you are doing.

Kick that debt to the curb!

Get that monkey off your back!

Don't keep it around like a pet!

You are young enough that you have time to super jump more into retirement. 

Looking forward to your Thursday Testimony of how you got out of that debt!

with issues that won't happen until her father passes away? I have helped them in the past with tax issues (filing, getting caught up on three years when they were too scared to file, etc.) That is all taken care of and she can do them herself these days with the free filling program through the IRS using one of the commercial software packages. But they live with her father who isn't on death's door, but is certainly older and ill. When he dies, they will inherit the house. There may be tax issues with that because he hasn't filed taxes in years (and won't accept any help). The income from the basement apartment will be theirs. That combined with her husband's salary from a new and moderately paid job may kick them out of Medicaid and cause all sorts of other financial issues. Neither of them have a credit rating that I am aware of because she has always been afraid of debt and all the household bills are in her dad's name since he owns the house (though they are the ones who pay all of the bills from property taxes to gas and electric). To be perfectly honest, this is well outside my areas of expertise. My first recommendation was to find out the name of her father's lawyer and find copies of the documents he had drafted about a decade ago, but the lawyer can't talk to her without her dad's permssion. And I suspect she will need a few thousand bucks to handle the legal things when her father passes and it could take a while to save that much. So, I guess the question is where do you go to talk about planning that isn't an immediate crisis, but could be one any time. Are the counselors at non-profit places all booked up with families in a current crisis? Does it matter that they will have a substantial asset (maybe, and illiquid) when the crisis hits?

You are a dear, dear friend. Reading though the lines, I see much concern for your friend.

AARP has a site for caregiving. Start there. You will find resources for folks skilled at helping adult children talk to parents about their estate.

You might also help your friend find a reasonably priced estate attorney who can help the dad update his will or at least have a consultation with her about what she will need to do when her father dies.


I have received several of these scam calls, threating that they are going to send a constable to arrest me if I don't pay a certain fee and return the call. I ignore them-and if I'm in the right mood I'll humor them with questions-oftentimes ones they cannot answer and then go right back to yelling. but what really made me angry is when they called my mother in another state and said that I was going to be arrested unless she called back and provided information. That made me see red and the caller is lucky that I wasn't on the other end of the phone.

I'm hot red right along with you.

The rats!!!!!!

My elderly mother's caller id shows up on the TV screen when the phone rings while she's watching and she loves it. (Can't remember if it's Comcast or Verizon.) But even better, and it may exist and I just don't know about it, would be allowing her to program her phone line to only accept calls from certain numbers. Not to block them after they've come in and turned out to be telemarketers, but to program in only the numbers she trusts upfront. Other callers could have the option of leaving a message, but it wouldn't ring through unless it was from her "call friend list." Now that we all have cell phones, it's not like the people she wants to hear from are calling from random pay phones. Does such a service exist?

Not sure. Folk?

Hi Michelle, It is time for us to update our will. We were wondering if we should also plan for the living revocable trusts that we keep hearing about. We are older parents and don't want our children to have confusion over what to do when we pass on.

Talk to an attorney but if your estate is pretty simple, you probably don't need a trust. I don't have one.

I know you've covered this in the past, but can you again list resources for finding a reputable, knowledgeable fee-only financial planner? Thanks.

The National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (NAPFA)

I'm the mom of the 4 year old twins. I'm not sure how they would even have had their identities stolen. We've never used their SSNs for anything... But thanks for the tip - I'll check their credit scores...

Thanks for touching back.

So you would first check to see if they have credit files.

And crooks have an amazing ability to get our personal information. Those numbers are in a database and databases are being hacked at an alarming rate. 

My parents are in an assisted living wing of a senior building. My mother got a "live" IRS scam call in the spring, was savvy enough to see through it and reported it to the assisted living staff. They in turn told building management and within hours, a flier was posted in hallways and slipped under every door in the building warning the seniors. The other "strategy" we've employed is hiding the wallets. My father has dementia and would whip out his credit card if ever asked. The wallets are hidden in the apartment, he can never remember where. So that keeps him from giving out personal financial information when he also can't remember bank account numbers or PINs. Mom knows where the wallets are if she needs something, as does one trusted aide. They have caller ID but pretty much answer every call. I don't have it because I won't pay for it, but l know about the scams (IRS, computer virus, whatever) and just hang up. They have caller ID but will answer pretty much any call. I don't have caller ID because no, I won't pay for it. The

Thanks for sharing.


Hi Michelle, thanks for taking my question. What is your advice when it comes to paying for weddings? My older brother and his fiance are getting married next May. Per tradition, her parents will be paying for the wedding ceremony while our parents will be in charge for the rehearsal dinner. I know for a fact that our parents will not be able to afford the dinner without having to dip into savings or take out a loan. Dad mentioned to me a few days ago that Mom is already stressed about it. What's the best method to take when dealing with these sorts of financial issues?

I want to give a longer response, so may save most of what I want to say for a column. But for right now, I would encourage you to encourage your parents to have a candid conversation with your older brother. They SHOULD NOT pay for a dinner they cannot afford. Or why don't they have a dinner at their house -- even pot luck-- for just the wedding party or just the bride, groom, parents, siblings. So many ways to do this without going into debt. Help them speak up. 

I don't think it's possible. We ended up cutting the landline because we got really only calls from ("legit") telemarketers, robo-politco calls, and the occasional scam call. I give out my cell phone very sparingly, and frankly it's much cleaner. Wish old folks would just embrace technology.

Or wish people wouldn't take advantage of folks who shouldn't have to embrace what they don't want or need.

Wish I could stay longer. Great comments, questions, suggestions today. I try to say it every week but again, I read everything you write. All of it. Some of your questions turn into a column. If I didn't get to you so so sorry but try again next week.

Thanks to the regulars. Welcome to the newcomers. Hope you all come back next week. 

Take care. 

And remember help spread the word about the IRS Scam. Tweet or post on Facebook using the hashtag #StopIRSImpersonators Link to my columns. 

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Michelle Singletary
Michelle Singletary writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column, "The Color of Money," which appears in The Post on Thursday and Sunday and is carried in more than 120 newspapers.

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