This is an identity theft scam email. In the scam, criminals use a fake form W-8BEN, Certificate of Foreign Status of Beneficial Owner for United States Tax Withholding and Reporting (form downloads as a PDF) to gain personal and bank identification from taxpayers. Some versions of this scam have been circulating for more than ten years (downloads as a PDF). The IRS issued several warnings about the fraud over the years, including in 2017 and again in 2018. I guess for the scammers, old habits die hard.
Here’s how it works. The scammers send a letter to a taxpayer stating that they may be exempt from withholding and reporting income tax. However, the letter advises that the taxpayer needs to authenticate their information by filling out and returning a form W-8BEN – only the attached form W-8BEN and accompanying instructions are fakes.
The form W-8BEN is a legitimate tax form. It’s used by non-resident aliens who receive certain kinds of income. It’s typically executed to establish that you are not a U.S. person. For withholding purposes, it may also be used to claim a tax-treaty related reduced rate or exemption from withholding as a resident of a foreign country.
The top of the real form W-8BEN – including all of Part I – looks like this:
In contrast, the fake form W-8BEN looks like this:
You’ll note that the “newly revised” fake form W-8BEN asks for personal details such as your mother’s maiden name, your passport number, and deposit information. The email also asks you to attach copies of documents, like your passport and driver’s license, verifying your personally-identifying information.
The fake form specifically targets non-residents, but the scammers cover all of their bases for other taxpayers in the fraudulent instructions which are attached. The fake instructions look like this:
Those instructions, which purport to be revised as of February 2020, advise, among other things:
If you are a USA Citizen and resident, this form W-8BEN is not meant for you, please indicate “USA Citizen/Resident” on the form and return it to us. We shall then send you the appropriate form
Don’t click on the attachments, and just delete the email. Whether you’re a non-resident or resident, it’s bogus.
There are a couple of hints that indicate that this is a fake email:
- The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) will not reach out to you via email.
- The IRS would not direct you to return documents via email, especially to a non-government (.gov) address. The fake form advises you to send information to firstname.lastname@example.org.
- There are several grammar errors on the form, including the question, “How often do you come to USA and when did you arrived last?”
- There is inconsistent information on the form, including a note that this form W-8BEN is for individuals only and that “Entities must use Form W-8BEN.”
Also, remember that the IRS will never:
- Request banking information, PIN codes, or passwords.
- Call to demand immediate payment over the phone, nor will the agency call about taxes owed without first having mailed you a bill.
- Threaten to immediately bring in local police or other law-enforcement groups to have you arrested for not paying.
- Demand that you pay taxes without allowing you to question or appeal the amount they say you owe.
- Require you to use a specific payment method for your taxes, such as a prepaid debit card, gift card, or wire transfer.
- Ask for credit or debit card numbers over the phone or email.
If you are a victim of an IRS impersonation scam, you should report it to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration at its IRS Impersonation Scam Reporting site and to the IRS by emailing email@example.com with the subject line “IRS Impersonation Scam.”
When in doubt, assume it’s a scam. If you’re not sure whether a call is legitimate, hang up and call back using an official number (don’t just use the caller I.D. number on your phone since those can be spoofed). To reach IRS, call 1.800.829.1040. To contact Social Security, call 1.800.772.1213.
If you know for sure that it’s a scam, don’t engage with scammers or thieves, even if you want to tell them that you know it’s a scam, or you think that you can beat them. Just hang up or delete the email. You can find more tips on protecting yourself from identity-theft-related tax fraud here.