Tax season is a waking nightmare for Americans. Well, it is for me, at least. Between figuring out how to file, trying to understand my W2 and remembering how to do basic math, it can be extremely stressful. But there’s something even scarier lurking out there this time of year: tax scammers.
Yes, in case wringing your hands over the tax man weren’t enough, criminals are out there trying to swipe your hard-earned cash and personal information from right under your nose.
Luckily, there are a few ways to spot these scams and protect yourself.
Fake IRS phone calls
One of the most common scams out there today is the IRS phone call. It usually goes something like this. You get a call from someone claiming to be from the IRS. They say you haven’t paid your taxes properly and owe Uncle Sam some serious cash. The scammer will then demand that you pay them immediately, or they’ll send the feds over and have you arrested.
That’s some pretty scary stuff right there, especially if you have no idea what you’re doing when it comes to your taxes, and live in constant fear that you screwed up your last filing and are on the hook for thousands of dollars in fines.
But the truth is that the IRS will never contact you over the phone. What’s more, they won’t demand that you pay on the spot. The government actually gives you an opportunity to appeal the amount you owe.
And despite how scared you might be of the government, the IRS will never threaten to send in “Johnny Law” to arrest you for a first-time tax problem. It should also go without saying that the feds will never ask for you to pay your taxes in gift cards. Yes, that’s seriously something criminals have done.
Scammers trying to “confirm” IRS contact information
This is another phone-based IRS scam, but rather than just calling you up and demanding money, the criminals use a little more finesse to steal from you. According to the IRS, the confirmation scam sees a scammer spoof their phone number to make it look like the call is coming from the IRS.
When you become suspicious, the thief will tell you to open up the IRS.gov website on your web browser and look for the service’s telephone number. Once you see that the number on the website matches the spoofed number the scammer called you from, they will go back to demanding money for unpaid taxes.
A similar scam sees criminals pretending to be from the IRS’s Taxpayers Advocacy Service, an independent internal service meant to assist taxpayers with questions and issues with their tax bills. In this instance, the scammer will spoof the number of the TAS and then ask the victim to check the number on the TAS site to “prove” that the scammer isn’t a fake.
Again, the IRS will never contact you via a phone call. And even if they did, identifying themselves using a phone number should be highly suspicious.
Phony IRS emails
TL;DR: If you get a random email from the IRS, it’s not from the IRS.
These are just like those fake IRS phone calls, but in email form. Unfortunately, these can be even more convincing fakes, as they include things like official-looking IRS logos and signatures.
I actually received a phony email from Britain’s version of the IRS, HM Revenue & Customs. Considering I live in Queens, New York, and not the U.K., though, that scammer missed the mark by a few thousand miles or so.
Outside of trying to trick you out of your cash, these emails also come with the added risk of malware and ransomware if you download any files embedded in them or click on any included links.
One particular way scammers try to trick consumers is by including an attachment titled “Tax Transcript,” though it could go by other names as well. The key here is to remember that the IRS won’t reach out to you via email. The only way the IRS will try to get in touch with you is via snail mail.
This one specifically targets companies’ payroll and human resources departments. The scheme works like this: Criminals send an email impersonating a company’s CEO or other executive officer to that organization’s payroll or HR professionals asking for personal information about employees.
According to the IRS, which issued a warning about this scam in January, criminals will request items like employee names, Social Security numbers, and income data. The scammers will then try to file fraudulent tax returns using the victims’ information in order to receive their refunds.
According to a report by Sophos’ Naked Security Blog, Snap, Inc. fell for this exact scam back in 2016.
According to Wired, the security firm Lookout has come across a number of websites masquerading as the homepages for Intuit’s Turbotax and Quickbooks. The idea here is to record a victim’s username and password or their Social Security number in some cases.
The websites are specifically crafted with URLs that line up closely to TurboTax’s and Quickbooks’ real URLs but are slightly off by or have added a few characters. The point is to get victims to search for either website using Google or another search engine, and then trick them into believing they are clicking a link for the actual TurboTax and Quickbooks site.
The best way to avoid a situation like this is to ensure that the link you’re clicking on is accurate by looking at it closely before entering your private information.
The non-existent federal student tax
Have you ever heard of the federal student tax? No? Good, because the IRS says there’s no such thing. But that doesn’t stop criminals from trying to trick people into believing there is such a tax and that they need to pay for it.
This works the same way as other standard IRS scams. Victims receive a phone call or email from criminals impersonating the IRS telling them that they haven’t paid their student tax and that if they don’t they’ll be arrested or fined.
The crooks will then demand that the victim pay via their credit or debit card or with gift cards. Basically, if anyone tells you they’re trying to collect on the federal student tax, tell them to take a hike.
Verifying tax information
This particular scam sees criminals asking victims to verify items like the last four digits of their Social Security numbers, or other tax information. The scammers could also ask for items like your bank account information or your full Social Security number.
Remember, the IRS won’t ask you for any information over the phone. If the person is impersonating a tax preparer or preparation agency, your best bet is to hang up and call your actual tax agent or send your real tax professional an email asking if they need your information.
What to do if you suspect it’s a scam
If you receive a phone call that you think is a scam, hang up. If you receive an email you suspect is fraudulent don’t reply or click any embedded links. Instead, report it to the U.S. Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration at the TIGTA’s website, or by calling 1-800-366-4484.
And if someone asks you to pay your taxes in iTunes gift cards, please ignore them.
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