(TNS)—Fraudsters are rolling out a glut of legitimate-looking but fake text messages, emails and social media posts this tax season, according to the Internal Revenue Service. Many look like they’re coming from the IRS when they are not.
“The IRS won’t use social media to contact you,” says Luis D. Garcia, an IRS spokesman in Detroit.
So if you receive a direct message via Twitter from someone claiming to be an IRS representative, don’t fall for it. If somehow you’ve clicked on a link or gone online, make sure you’re dealing with the correct website for the IRS at www.irs.gov, as well.
“There are imitators that pop up,” Garcia warns.
Crooks once again want to steal your personal information, including sensitive tax and financial data.
“Taxpayers should be on constant guard for these phishing schemes, which can be tricky and cleverly disguised to look like it’s the IRS,” said IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig in a statement.
As part of the IRS annual warning of a “Dirty Dozen” tax scams, Rettig warned consumers that phishing schemes remain a threat. One creative scheme: Crooks are using a taxpayer’s real bank account to direct deposit refunds. The crime ring will file fake tax returns using stolen ID information to generate oversized refunds. To make returns seem more legitimate, the fraudsters are attempting to directly deposit refunds into real accounts so the IRS doesn’t flag the refund as phony.
The IRS first warned of this growing scam in 2018 after discovering more tax practitioners’ computer files had been breached. At that time, the number of potential taxpayer victims jumped from a few hundred to several thousand in just days. Now, the IRS is warning of the same scheme again.
Remember, you’re going to be on the hook if you spend that erroneous refund money or hand it over to the crooks.
“Thieves then use various tactics to reclaim the refund from the taxpayer,” the IRS warned.
The crooks may contact tax filers and claim to be from a collection agency or the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS recommends contacting the Automated Clearing House department of your bank that received the erroneous refund money. Then, have the bank return the money to the IRS. See tax “Topic No. 161: Returning an Erroneous Refund” on the IRS website.
By law, interest may accrue on erroneous refunds, so you do need to take action. You’d need to call the IRS toll-free at 800-829-1040 (individual) or 800-829-4933 (business) to explain why the direct deposit is being returned.
If you receive a tax refund via a check in the mail, do not cash the paper check for an erroneous refund. The IRS says you’d write “void” on the endorsement section on the back of the check, and then submit the check back to the IRS. The IRS mailing address that you’d use is based on the city (possibly abbreviated) located on the bottom text line in front of the words TAX REFUND on the refund check. Don’t staple, bend or paper clip the check. Include a note stating: “Return of erroneous refund check because (and give a brief explanation of the reason for returning the refund check).”
If somehow you cashed that fake refund check, you’re still going to need to go through a process with the IRS to return that money. See Topic No. 161.
The IRS noted recently it also has seen more schemes that target the tax pros, payroll offices and human resources personnel. Criminals might pretend to be a representative from another business asking the recipient to pay a fake invoice, or they might pretend to be an employee seeking to re-route a direct deposit.
Remember, crooks might use some email credentials obtained through a successful phishing attack to send more fake emails to the victim’s contacts. Tax preparers are warned to be wary of unsolicited email from personal or business contacts—especially someone pretending to be a new potential client. You can report phishing emails by sending it to email@example.com.
Other warnings related to top “Dirty Dozen” scams include:
Is that really an IRS agent calling you?
During the regular tax season, criminals often pretend to be IRS agents or other officials collecting bogus tax bills. The crooks want to steal money or personal information. The Federal Communications Commission issued an alert March 7 indicating that bad actors may be turning their attention to impersonating IRS agents. The scammers often use technology known as spoofing to make your phone’s caller ID display a number that looks like it’s from the IRS to try to trick you into answering.
“These calls most often take the form of a ‘robo-call’ (with instructions to call back a specific telephone number),” the IRS said.
In some cases, deceptive phone calls may be made by a real person. Con artists might even have some of the taxpayer’s information, including their address, the last four digits of their Social Security number or other personal details.
The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, the federal agency that investigates tax-related phone scams, says these types of scams have cost 14,700 victims a total of more than $72 million since Oct. 2013.
Remember, the IRS isn’t going to call to demand immediate payment using a specific payment method such as a prepaid debit card, gift card or wire transfer. Generally, the IRS will first mail you a bill if you owe any taxes.
The IRS also doesn’t demand that you pay taxes without giving you the opportunity to question or appeal the amount they say you owe, and the IRS doesn’t ask for credit, debit or gift card numbers over the phone.
Watch out for new twists on phone scams.
The IRS warned recently that criminals are making fake calls from the Taxpayer Advocate Service, an independent organization within the IRS. In a recent scam, crooks spoof phone numbers from the taxpayer advocate office in Texas or New York. It may start as a robo-call, but if you return that call, the fraudsters will request personal information, including a Social Security number.
Protect data, like Social Security numbers.
Despite a steep drop in tax-related identity theft in recent years, the IRS warned taxpayers that the ID theft tax scams remain serious. As a result, tax filers must use security software with firewall and antivirus protections. Make sure security software is turned on and can automatically update. Encrypt sensitive files such as tax records stored on the computer. Use strong passwords. Do not click on links or download attachments from unknown or suspicious emails. Be wary of crooks who might pretend to represent a legitimate bank or credit card company. Don’t routinely carry a Social Security card, and make sure tax records are secure.
“Treat personal information like cash; don’t leave it lying around,” the IRS said.
Stay away from fake 1099-MISC forms.
Con artists may use fake forms to help you get a bigger refund by claiming tax credits that you’re really not qualified to receive. In some scams, people end up claiming income that they’ve never earned. The income shows up on a phony 1099-MISC form.
The IRS is warning taxpayers to avoid getting caught up in scams disguised by debt payment programs involving credit cards and mortgages. Unscrupulous promoters of these scams often argue, according to the IRS, that the consumer needs to use some sort of “bonded promissory note” as a payment method for dealing with credit card or mortgage debt. Then, the con artists may provide a fraudulent 1099-MISC that appears to be issued by a large bank or other financial institution.
It’s not unusual for bad actors to dupe others into making claims for fictitious rebates, benefits or tax credits. Some even file a false return in their client’s name, and the client never knows that a refund was paid to the con artist.
In general, the IRS warns that anyone who prepares tax returns and promises larger refunds than others should be treated with much caution. The same’s true for the friend of a friend who somehow cranks out tax returns that have much larger refunds than taxpayers have typically seen.
“Scam artists can use flyers, advertisements, phony storefronts or word-of-mouth to attract victims,” the IRS said. “They may even make presentations through community groups or churches.”
Remember, if your tax return is somehow rejected by the IRS system when you try to file electronically, a fraudster might have already used your ID to file a phony return to trigger a big refund.
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