Who loves tax season besides accountants? Scammers.
Emotions can run high during tax time. Even if you’re pretty sure you did everything right, you may still have a few doubts kicking around. Did I file correctly? Did I claim the right deductions? Will I get audited? As it turns out, these are the very same anxieties that criminals use as the cornerstone of their attacks.
So yes, crooks indeed love tax season. Particularly online. And they’ll bait your digital world with several proven types of scams in an effort to cash in on what can be a somewhat uncertain time.
The good news is that you have plenty of ways to protect yourself from these scams. Let’s look at what scammers typically have in store, along with some practical advice to protect yourself as you file your taxes—things you can do to keep crooks out of your business this tax season.
The tax scam landscape
First, know that you’re probably doing a good job with your taxes. Less than 2% of returns get audited and most discrepancies or adjustments can get handled easily if you address them promptly.
Still, the wariness of the IRS and intricate tax laws makes for ripe pickings when it comes to hackers, who prey on people’s fear of audits and penalties. Common scams include fake emails, phone calls from crooks posing as IRS agents, and even robocalls that threaten jail time.
What are crooks looking to do with their scams? Several things:
- Steal account information – Scammers will often try to highjack account or financial information associated with credit cards and banks to steal funds and make purchases with the victim’s accounts.
- File false returns – Scammers will also try and get their hands on personal information like Social Security Numbers, taxpayer ID numbers, and other unique information so that they can file false returns in the victim’s name and claim their refunds.
- Commit identity theft – Scammers may then use this same personal information to open new credit lines and accounts in the victim’s name, as well as commit other forms of identity theft like assuming a victim’s identity to gain employment, housing, insurance, or a driver’s license.
As if we didn’t have enough to worry about at tax time without crooks in the mix.
The IRS Dirty Dozen: 12 tax-season scams
Investigating the landscape even more closely, we can turn to the authority itself, as the IRS has published its most recent top 12 tax season scams, a broad list that includes:
For a comprehensive look at each one of these scams, and for ways, you can steer clear of them, check our Guide to IRS & Tax Season Scams. However, there are some common threads to many of these scams.
For starters, plenty of tax scams involve crooks posing as an IRS employee, perhaps via a phone call or email, to glean personal information from you, or to demand payment—sometimes under the threat of penalties or even jail time. Crooks won’t hesitate to use strong-arm tactics like these and play on your fears. The good news is that such tactics are typically a sign that the contact isn’t legitimate. In fact, a quick way to spot a scam is to know what the IRS won’t do when they contact you. From the IRS.gov website, the IRS will not:
- Initiate contact with taxpayers by email, text messages, or social media channels to request personal or financial information.
- Call to demand immediate payment using a specific payment method such as a prepaid debit card, gift card, or wire transfer. Mention of prepaid cards or wire transfer as a payment option is a surefire sign of a scam.
- Demand that you pay taxes without the opportunity to question or appeal the amount they say you owe. You should also be advised of your rights as a taxpayer.
- Threaten to bring in local police, immigration officers, or other law enforcement to have you arrested for not paying. The IRS also cannot revoke your driver’s license, business license, or immigration status. Threats like these are common tactics scam artists use to trick victims into buying into their schemes.
What will the IRS do? Usually, the IRS will first mail notification to any taxpayer who owes taxes. IRS collection employees might call on the phone or make an unannounced visit to your home or business. If they require payment, the payment will always be to the U.S. Treasury. Read about other ways to know what the IRS won’t do when they contact you.
Other types of tax scams that crooks love to use
Scammers won’t limit themselves to posing as the IRS. They’ll act as an imposter in several other ways as well. For example, they may pose as a popular do-it-yourself tax brand, a tax preparer, or even as a phony charitable organization that promises any donations you make are tax-deductible.
Here, they may send you phony emails or direct messages or even ring you up with bogus telemarketing or robocalls designed to steal personal information.
In the cases where the scammers reach you online, the emails and messages they send will vary in their tone and polish—in other words, how authentic they appear. Some will look nearly legitimate and cause even the most hardened of digital skeptics to click on a phony link or download a sketchy attachment. Others, well, will look clearly like spam, complete with spelling and grammatical errors, along with clumsy use of logos, layouts, and design.
Taken together, both are ways that scammers get people to visit sites designed to compromise personal information … or to download malware like keyloggers that skim account passwords and ransomware that encrypt a victim’s files hold them hostage for a price.
Social media attacks also made the IRS Dirty Dozen. In a social media attack, scammers harvest information from social media profiles and turn it against their victims. Per the IRS, because “social media enables anyone to share information with anyone else on the Internet, scammers use that information as ammunition for a wide variety of scams. These include emails where scammers impersonate someone’s family, friends, or co-workers.”
With those personal details gleaned from social media, scammers will send phony links to scam sites, promote bogus charities, or flat-out ask for money or gift cards to “help them out” at tax time.
Protecting yourself from tax season scams
Keep your guard up for spammy messages and phishing attacks
No question that bogus emails, messages, and phone calls remain a popular way for scammers to steal personal and financial information. Spam emails, messages, and the malicious links associated with them abound this time of year as well. It’s always to keep a critical eye open for these, and it’s particularly true during tax season.
View all emails with attachments and links with suspicion, even if they appear to come from a person, business, or brand you know. Confirm attachments with the people you know before opening. And if you receive a message or alert about an account of yours, visit that company or organization’s website directly to enquire into the status of your account rather than taking a chance by clicking on a link that could send you to a phony website.
File A.S.A.P. and check your credit report
One way to protect yourself from an identity thief from claiming a return in your name is to file yours before they do. In fact, many victims of identity theft find out they’ve been scammed when they receive an IRS notification that their tax claim has already been filed. Simply put, file early.
Here’s another tool that can help you fight identity theft. And get this: it’s not only helpful, but it’s also free. Through the Federal Trade Commission, you are entitled to a free copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit reporting companies once every 12 months. In this report, you can find inaccuracies in your credit or evidence of all-out identity theft.
Keep in mind that you get one report from each of the reporting companies each year. That works out to three reports total in one year. Consider this: if you request one report from one credit reporting company every four months, you can spread your free credit report coverage across the whole year.
Keep your social media profiles and posts close to the vest
As with much of the guidance we offer around social media, one of the best ways to prevent such social media tax attacks is to make your profiles private so that only friends and family can see them. That way, scammers will have a far more difficult time reaching you. Moreover, consider paring back the information you share in your social media profiles, like your alma maters, birthday, mother’s maiden name, pet names—any personal information that a scammer may use to compromise your accounts or the security questions associated with them.
Security software can protect you from fraud and theft too
Protecting your devices with comprehensive online protection software can help block the phishing emails and suspicious links that make up many of these tax attacks. Likewise, it can further protect you from ransomware attacks like mentioned above. Additionally, our online Protection Score looks for weak spots in your protection and helps you shore them up, such as if discovers that your info was compromised or part of a data breach. From there, it guides you through the steps to correct the problem.
Further, consider online protection software that offers identity theft protection as well. A strong identity theft protection package offers cyber monitoring that scans the dark web to detect misuse of your personal info. With our identity protection service, we help relieve the burden of identity theft if the unfortunate happens to you with $1M coverage for lawyer fees, travel expenses, lost wages, and more.
Think you’ve been a victim of a tax scam?
The IRS offers steps you can take in the event you suspect fraud or theft. Their current resources include:
- Contacting the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration to report a phone scam. Use their “IRS Impersonation Scam Reporting” web page. You can also call 800-366-4484.
- If the scam relates to your state income taxes, report it to your state Attorney General’s office.
- Report phone scams to the Federal Trade Commission as well with the “FTC Complaint Assistant” on FTC.gov. They ask you to add “IRS Telephone Scam” in the notes.
- Reporting an unsolicited email claiming to be from the IRS, or an IRS-related component like the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System, to the IRS at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Take a deeper dive on the topic of online tax scams
As mentioned above, you can get even more up to speed on the different tricks hackers are using by downloading our Guide to IRS & Tax Season Scams. It’s free, and it offers more ways you can protect your identity and information this tax season and year ‘round.