For cybercriminals tax time is the most wonderful time of the year. They are in the shadows giddy, eager, and methodically setting a variety of digital traps knowing that enough taxpayers take the bait to render their efforts worthwhile.
Indeed, with the frenzy of online tax filings, personal information (and money) moving through mailboxes, and hardworking people eagerly awaiting tax refunds, crooks are perfectly positioned for big returns this year.
So let’s be wiser and let’s be ready.
Last year, the IRS noted a 60 percent spike in bogus email schemes seeking to steal money or tax information. This year its a surge in phishing scams, says the IRS, that should have taxpayers on alert.
“The holidays and tax season present great opportunities for scam artists to try stealing valuable information through fake emails,” said IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig. “Watch your inbox for these sophisticated schemes that try to fool you into thinking they’re from the IRS or our partners in the tax community. Taking a few simple steps can protect yourself during the holiday season and at tax time.”
Scams to Look For
According to the IRS, phishing emails are circulating with subjects such as “IRS Important Notice,” “IRS Taxpayer Notice” and other iterations of that message. The fraudulent emails may demand payment with the threat of seizing the recipient’s tax refund or even jail time.
Attacks may also use email or malicious links to solicit tax or financial information by posing as a trustworthy organization or even a personal friend or business associate of the recipient.
While some emails may have obvious spelling errors or grammar mistakes, some scammers have gone to great lengths to piece together a victim’s personal information to gain their trust. These emails look legitimate, have an authentic tone, and are crafted to get even skeptics to compromise personal data using malicious web links.
Scams include emails with hyperlinks that take users to a fake site or PDF attachments that may download malware or viruses designed to grab sensitive information off your devices. With the right data in hand such as a social security number, crooks can file fake returns and claim your tax return, open credit cards, or run up medical bills.
Other tax scams include threatening phone calls from bogus IRS agents demanding immediate payment of past due tax bills and robocalls that leave urgent callback messages designed to scare victims into immediate payment.
Remember, the IRS will NOT:
- Call to demand immediate payment over the phone, nor will the agency call about taxes owed without first having mailed you several bills.
- Call or email you to verify your identity by asking for personal and financial information.
- Demand that you pay taxes without giving you the opportunity 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.
- Ask for credit or debit card numbers over the phone or
- Threaten to immediately bring in local police or other law-enforcement groups to have you arrested for not paying.
How to Protect Yourself
Be hyper-aware. Never open a link or attachment from an unknown or suspicious source. In fact, approach all emails with caution even those from people you know. Scams are getting more sophisticated. According to the IRS, thieves can compromise a friend’s email address, or they may be spoofing the address with a slight change in the email text that is hard to recognize.
Reduce your digital footprint. Now is a great time to go through your social accounts and online profiles, posts, and photos and boost your family’s privacy. Edit out any personal information such as your alma mater, your address, birthdate, pet names, children’s names, or mother’s maiden name. Consider making your social profiles private and filtering your friends’ list to actual people you know.
Have a strong password strategy. Cybercrooks count on their victims using the same password for multiple accounts. Lock them out by using unique passwords for separate accounts. Also, consider using two-factor authentification that requires a security code (sent to your phone) to access your account.
Install security software. Phishing emails carry malware and viruses designed to infect your devices and grab your family’s sensitive data or even seize your computer via ransomware. Crooks aren’t messing around so neither should you. Meet fire with fire by investing in comprehensive security software to protect your devices.
If you are the victim of tax fraud or identity theft, take the proper reporting steps. If you receive any unsolicited emails claiming to be from the IRS, forward them to firstname.lastname@example.org (then delete the emails).