As we get closer to April 15th here in the U.S., tax scams will be on the rise. Every year phishers, scammers, and hackers take to the Internet and attempt to rook as many people as possible into forking over their banking information and hard-earned cash. We’ll give you some pointers on how to detect, and avoid, some of the more common tax scams.
Most tax scams involve someone claiming to be from the IRS, and the scam will more than likely involve identity theft. These scammers pose as legitimate IRS employees and try to fool you into giving them personal and/or financial information. (e.g. passwords, Social Security numbers, PIN numbers, bank account information, credit card numbers, and even your mother’s maiden name) Any information they gain can be used to try to get access to one or more of your accounts and rob you blind. While snail mail scam attempts are not unheard of, it’s much easier for the bad guys to send out false IRS emails or set up fake IRS websites.
When it comes to figuring out if an email or web site is really from the IRS or if it’s part of an elaborate tax scam, there are usually some tell-tale signs to distinguish the fake from the real. First off, if the name of the Internal Revenue Service or any other federal agency is spelled wrong, that’s a dead giveaway. Another common problem is bad grammar and/or odd phrasing of words. Many of the email or website tax scams come from overseas, and non-native English speakers will usually get something wrong when they write the content for their scam.
There are innumerable ways that someone can try to take advantage of you, but here are some of the more common IRS tax and/or refund scams to watch out for:
Fake Links and Phony Websites: The IRS says that this is the most common tax scam: Someone claiming to be from the IRS and sending out an email promising tax refunds when you click a link in the email and fill out a form on a web page. Phishing scams involving an identical-looking (but fake) IRS website are all too common. Just remember that the only way to get a refund is by sending in your tax return to the IRS, not by clicking a link you get in an email.
We’ve got a blog post on “How to Spot a Fake Website” that can help you figure out what’s real and what’s a scam.
Form W-8BEN: Even though form W-8BEN is a real tax form, a rising tax scam is for someone claiming to be from the IRS and asking you to fill out Form W-8BEN. This is particularly nasty because this form requires personal financial details to be submitted, and should only be submitted through your financial institution. (The IRS will never ask you to fill out a W-8BEN form.) In general the IRS doesn’t send unsolicited emails to taxpayers and they certainly don’t discuss or request tax account information via email.
Fake Refunds: One of the scams the IRS warns taxpayers about are emails or letters promising refunds that don’t actually exist. They could claim to detail some new “economic recovery” law you’re eligible for (and an increased tax refund) if you register your bank account info with the IRS, or they may even offer to pay you to take part in an IRS survey. If you sign up, instead of a bigger refund or a fat check you’ll be funding a scammer for his or her next vacation. If you want to maximize your refund, consider hiring a trusted professional instead of signing up for something from an unsolicited email.
Virus-infected tax forms: Malware attacks aimed at U.S. taxpayers tend to rise during tax season, and fake W-2 forms in an email can be filled with trojans, spyware, or viruses. Before opening any email attachment, make sure you are expecting an email with an attachment or you may unwittingly give hackers access to your computer. Once they’re on your system, a hacker can install key logging software to capture everything you type (emails, passwords, shopping cart items, Internet searches, etc.) without you knowing about it at all.
Threatening emails: Some tax scams take a hard-nose approach to their phishing attempts. You could receive an email threatening you with legal consequences if you don’t respond to an e-mail or register on a website provided, which will be conveniently run by the scammer. Things they may tell you that you’ll be liable for include additional taxes, huge legal fees, or a reduction of tax refunds.
As long as there are taxes, there will be tax scams aimed at innocent people. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. If it sounds too fishy, it probably is. If you think someone is trying to scam you, or if you think you were the victim of a tax-related scam, contact the IRS, your bank (including credit card companies and other financial institutions if applicable), and your local police department.