As if tax time weren’t tough enough, scammers are doubling down efforts to steal more of your hard-earned money. According to the Internal Revenue Service, there’s a spike in online tax scams and an aggressive phone scam is making the rounds again, too.
Here are the top telltale signs to help you spot a scam in your email, Facebook, or on your phone — before it can do any real damage.
The first telltale sign of this scam is that it’s an out-of-the-blue call from the “IRS,” threatening to arrest you. Scammers often use fear to intimidate you and catch you off guard, and this one does both.
The way it works is like this: You get a phone message or call from someone “from the IRS,” or the “IRS legal department.” The person says that they’ve put a warrant out for your arrest and if you don’t make a payment over the phone immediately, you’ll be hauled off to jail. The scammer might even give a “badge number,” and throw around terms like “tax fraud” and “outstanding liability” to suck you in. They also tend to target the elderly, immigrants, and college students — people who might be easier to convince that they’ve made a mistake on their taxes.
THE FIX: Hang up!
Whatever you do, don’t pay a cent! The IRS does not initiate contact over the phone, nor do they “hunt you down” and threaten to send police to your door. Scammers often claim that you must pay your bill using a prepaid debit card, or seven iTunes gift cards, and that’s another thing the IRS just does not do. If you get one of these calls, hang up and report it immediately.
THE SCAM: The “IRS” emails you
One of the biggest hot spots for tax fraudsters is your email inbox. You get an email saying your return is on hold or that you can expedite your payment if you reply with some bank account information. These fake emails use IRS logos and false email addresses to make themselves look official or add “case numbers” and other official looking information to confuse you. They’ve even started contacting people on Facebook, and will claim that you haven’t responded to emails, so they had to track you down on social media. Don’t be fooled, it’s all a huge scam.
THE FIX: Report and delete!
The IRS doesn’t send correspondence to taxpayers via email, and definitely never over Facebook. The IRS never asks for specific bank, debit, or credit card information via email or through a link to an online form. Never click a link from one of these emails or messages, or attempt to reply to the sender, because it might put you at risk for malware or computer viruses. The IRS recommends you immediately forward the suspicious email to firstname.lastname@example.org and then delete the original email so it can do no further harm.
THE SCAM: Fake mail from the “IRS”
The IRS sends a lot of letters, but so do scammers. One of most recent scams involves fake tax bills tied to the Affordable Care Act. It’s supposed to be a CP-2000 notice from the IRS, which is a real notice that some people might get indicating they owe money to the government. But take a look at a fake letter on the left, and compare it to a genuine notice on the right.
THE FIX: Double check and verify everything!
As clever as the fake notice seems, it’s filled with red flags. The overall layout and logo are different and the fakes direct you to make out the check to “I.R.S.” rather than the U.S. Treasury. If you get any kind of notice in the mail saying that you owe money or even that you have a refund coming, but need to give them your bank account or credit card information, don’t hand it over before confirming it’s actually from the government. You can find the official phone numbers for the IRS on its contact page, as well as addresses to send payments and other documentation if the government requests it.
THE SCAM: Fake tax preparer notices
Not every crook pretends to be from the government. Some scams show up in your email, on Facebook, Twitter, or by text message claiming to be from a legitimate tax service that you actually use, like TurboTax. As Intuit’s own Online Security Center explains, these are primarily “phishing” attacks trying to get you to either hand over sensitive information or click on a nefarious link. Here are two examples of fake TurboTax emails from one week alone:
Photo TurboTax 1
THE FIX: Send it to the trash or ask the “spoof”
Not to sound like a broken record here, but these scam emails all have one thing in common: they rely on you to click a link or reply to them in order to make you a victim. Don’t do it!
If you get an email like this, double check the senders' address, where you'll often find the company name misspelled. You can even the scan the email for suspicious links yourself by mousing over them (the address each link goes to appears at the bottom of the screen or in a little pop-up next to your mouse).
If you would rather be safe than sorry, just axe the email and head straight to the supposed source. If it’s from TurboTax, go straight to TurboTax.com to log in to your account. Never follow a link inside of an email because it could be sending you to a fake clone of the real thing. If you want the suspicious email investigated, you can even forward it to email@example.com and they’ll check it out for themselves.
Bottomline: When in doubt, do a little homework
If something doesn’t look quite right, it never hurts to check it out. Here are some other resources for common scams:
- Think you’ve spotted a tax prep fake? Check them out at the Better Business Bureau website.
- Charity fraud is another big one: For charities soliciting donations, CharityNavigator and GuideStar keep rankings and ratings of all legitimate charities and it’s as simple as typing in the name.
Now’s probably a good time to remind you, and everyone you love, to update security software, lockdown those passwords, and when something feels a little off — trust your gut. After all, this is your money we’re talking about here.
Jennifer Jolly is an Emmy Award-winning consumer tech contributor and host of USA TODAY's digital video show TECH NOW. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JenniferJolly.