In a few weeks, the dreaded tax season will be over. We loathe those oddly titled documents with the tiny print. We wonder what number – refund or remainder – those mysterious equations will spit out.
And as more of us sign up as part-time contractors, driving for Lyft and selling crafts on Etsy, our taxes get more complicated. We get anxious.
Criminals love to take advantage of that anxiety.
Tax scams and phishing operations are getting more sophisticated than ever. By faking ads, websites and caller IDs, scammers will gladly prey on your ignorance.
Impersonators have a new twist
Many people have fallen victim to fake calls from the IRS. These calls are designed to trick you into giving up your personal info. They’ll pretend to be an IRS employee, even some type of federal agent or law enforcement officer and demand you pay non-existent overdue taxes. They will insist on using wire transfer, prepaid debit card or gift cards. If you don’t pay up, scammers say they’ll come to your house and arrest you.
Conversely, scammers may play “good cop” as well: They’ll impersonate a friendly IRS agent and say you’re entitled to a big refund. You just have to hand over some of your info first.
Now there’s a new spin. Impersonators are calling, saying they’re from the Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS), which is an independent organization within the IRS. They’ll even spoof the number from TAS offices in Houston and Brooklyn. It could be a person or a robocall asking for a callback, but either way, those scammers will ask for your info, which includes your Social Security number or individual taxpayer identification number (ITIN).
Here’s the thing – the real TAS exists to help you resolve an IRS-related problem. But you call them, not the other way around.
Be smart and look for these signs
There are definite red flags that can identify a scammer, no matter how real they sound. Here’s what they do:
- Scammers identify themselves using fake names and IRS badge numbers.
- They might even know the last four digits of your Social Security number.
- It’s not hard for scammers to spoof phone and identification numbers to appear official.
- Fake emails might accompany phishing calls.
- They might even go as far to fake background noises of other calls so it’ll sound like a real call center.
The IRS says crooks might threaten to put you in jail or revoke your driver’s license and then in some cases, and they’ll hang up. That’ll be followed with a call from someone pretending to be from another agency, like local police or the DMV, to give more weight to the initial threat. Again, Caller ID will probably say the same thing, but don’t fall for it.
The IRS says they’ll never call you demanding immediate payment. And the biggest red flag is that government agencies don’t ask people to pay with gift cards. That’s the easiest tell.
If you do owe money to the real IRS, you’ll get a bill in the mail. You can set up a payment plan, and you will either send a check or use a trusted third-party service (verified on the IRS website) to pay overdue taxes online.
How to protect yourself from IRS scams
There are some easy ways to make sure you don’t become the victim of one of these scams. First of all, the real IRS also doesn’t threaten to have you arrested, nor do they call about a bonus refund you’re entitled to. And they certainly don’t ask for credit or debit card numbers over the phone.
If you get a call from one of these scammers, hang up immediately. If they sense hesitation and think they’ve got you on the hook, they might keep calling back to convince you that they’re real.
You can report those calls to email@example.com. Put “IRS Phone Scam” in the subject line. You can also contact the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, or TIGTA, to report the call, using their IRS Impersonation Scam Reporting page. The Federal Trade Commission is another option. Just use the “FTC Complaint Assistant” on FTC.gov, and add “IRS Telephone Scam” in the notes. You can also call the IRS at 800-366-4484.
The IRS also keeps an updated list of tax scams and consumer alerts on their website.
Microsoft said there was an average of 300,000 phishing attempts across their browsers Internet Explorer and Edge. Just think what that number really is when you factor in more popular browsers like Google Chrome.
If you’re a Windows 10 user, don’t rely on just passwords, and when possible, use multi-factor authentication. A lot of modern Windows-based laptops come equipped with “Windows Hello” face or fingerprint ID.
Watch out for suspicious-looking emails, too, especially those that say they’re your bank or another financial institution. Don’t download attachments sent by anyone you don’t know, and don’t click on included links.
Each year, the IRS puts together a list of the “dirty dozen,” or the most popular scams to look out for each year.