Beware Stimulus Check Scams: How To Avoid Six Common Scams

Most taxpayers have been or will soon be receiving a coronavirus stimulus check worth up to $1,200 per adult ($2,400 for couples) and $500 per child. It will take several months to distribute every stimulus check and, as a result, we will begin hearing about stimulus check scams.

Unfortunately, scams happen in regular times and even more common after a natural disaster or abnormal events – like a global pandemic.

Now people with bad intentions are coming after your one-time stimulus check payment. They may pretend to be the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) or your bank.

(if you aren't sure if they are the IRS, hang up and call them yourself – here's how to reach a live person at the IRS)

Here's what you need to know about how the IRS will distribute the economic impact payments and how to spot a scam.

When Will You Get Your Stimulus Check?

The Internal Revenue Service sent out the first economic impact payments by direct deposit in mid-April. Paper checks were mailed out on April 24th. The final paper check payments may not reach households until September.

It hasn't been a smooth process – with people having problems with the IRS Get My Payment tool used to check their status.

There is still plenty of time to fall into the snare of a stimulus check scam.

What Does the IRS Need for Your Stimulus Check?

Understanding how the IRS calculates and distributes your stimulus payment makes it easier to avoid a potential scam.

The CARES Act stimulus check legislation requires the following information:

  • Social Security number
  • 2019 federal tax return (or 2018 federal tax return)
  • Bank account information

These details help the IRS calculate your stimulus check amount. This is information most people carefully guard and rarely distribute except for in-person and when under stress. It's a really stressful time which makes it a feeding frenzy for thieves.

The IRS is using the same bank account to where they sent your 2019 federal tax return. If you still need to file your 2019 income taxes, the IRS uses the bank details from your 2018 tax return.

In addition to retrieving your bank account information, the IRS uses your adjusted gross income (AGI) and tax filing status to calculate your stimulus check amount.

Single filers will receive the full $1,200 rebate amount plus $500 per qualifying child with an AGI below $75,000. Income phaseouts reduce your payment amount by $5 for every $100 in additional income until your AGI reaches $99,000.

Joint filers receive a $2,400 check plus $500 per qualifying child with an AGI below $150,000. The income phaseouts end at $198,000.

Related: 2020 Coronavirus Stimulus Checks – A $1,200 Recovery Rebate

How to Spot a Stimulus Check Scam

Here are several of the most common tactics that scammers are using to steal your information.

1. The IRS Won't Call, Text, or Email You

How many times a day do you get a prerecorded message saying your iPhone or Windows PC needs an update? Or you've been preapproved for a loan? These robocalls are from scammers trying to steal your personal information when you least expect it.

Now, you may receive calls asking about your stimulus check or that the IRS needs critical information to make sure your payment makes it to you.

But the IRS isn't going to call you to verify your Social Security number, bank details, or verify your annual income. They already have this information. And if it's wrong, you have to go to the website to update it – they will not call.

The Federal Communications Commission has several audio samples of several phone call scams you can listen to.

As a heads up, the IRS will mail a confirmation letter 15 days after sending your payment. This letter is going to the last physical mailing address on file. You can visit the official IRS website to verify the letter you receive is legit.

2. Your Bank Won't Contact You

Your bank or credit union won't contact you to verify your details either. An impostor may try to pretend to be a bank agent wanting to enroll you in direct deposit or some other banking product. The only way to update your bank information with the IRS is on the official IRS website.

Some scammers are using a “tactic” called spoofing where they call from a phone number that appears to be the bank number. In reality, it's not the bank calling.

If the bank ever calls you, politely hang up and call back the bank using the customer service number on their website or the back of your card.

3. Don't Click on Email or Text Message Links

You might receive a text message or email telling you to click an internet link to claim your rebate. The links may take you to an IRS or bank website that looks legit.

These messages and the links are a scam. Don't click on them. Mark them as spam or junk mail.

There are a lot of different ways to identify a scammer's email but in this particular case, the IRS isn't going to email you to ask for information – all of those requests are going to be scams.

4. You Don't Need to Apply for a Stimulus Check

The IRS website explicitly states, “Most people won't need to take any action.” Taxpayers do not need to call the IRS to apply for the check. You can, if you choose, use the IRS tools to track the payment status of their stimulus check but if you are eligible, it's coming no matter what.

You may want to update your direct deposit information if you don't want to get a paper check but the IRS doesn't require you to.

Monitor your bank account regularly to see for recent deposits. The transaction should indicate it will come from the US Treasury Department.

Related: Can You Get Both Unemployment and a Stimulus Check?

5. Don't Pay an Application Fee or Buy Gift Cards

Some scammers pretend to be the IRS and say you need to pay money to get your check. Other scammers may try and trick you into buying gift cards to get a stimulus check. Once again, most taxpayers won't need to do anything to receive payment.

You can report these two scam types to the FBI at http://www.ic3.gov/.

6. The Stimulus Check is Tax-Free

Finally, you may also see correspondence offering to prepay the taxes for your check amount. All stimulus checks are tax-free as they reduce your federal income tax liability for your 2020 tax return.

The Treasury Department Inspector General for Tax Administration can investigate scams involving tax payments.

How to Report Potential Stimulus Check Scams

The best way to report a potential scam depends on what type of scam you receive. Contacting the National Center for Disaster Fraud can be the best option for most scams. You can call toll-free at 1-866-720-5721 or send an email to disaster@leo.gov.

Contacting your state or local fraud hotline can be a better option if your suspect an impostor from one of these agencies. Contact your bank if you suspect fraudulent bank correspondence.

Scam artists may only contact a small proportion of taxpayers. But it doesn't hurt to be too cautious when your personal information is at risk.

And for more information about relief packages, take a look at our Coronavirus financial relief page.

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About Josh Patoka

After graduating in $50k with student loans in May 2008 from Virginia Military Institute with a B.A. International Studies and Political Science with a minor in Spanish (I studied abroad in Sevilla, Spain for 3 months), Josh decided to sell his soul for seven years by working in the transportation industry to get out of debt ASAP and focus on doing something else with a better work-life balance.

He is a father of three and has been writing about (almost) everything personal finance since 2015. You can also find him at his own blog Money Buffalo where he shares his personal experience of becoming debt-free (twice) and taking a 50%+ pay cut when he changed careers.

Today, Josh relishes the flexibility of being self-employed and debt-free and encourages others to pursue their dreams. Josh enjoys spending his free time reading books and spending time with his wife and three children.

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