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5 tax scams to avoid

Daniel Howley
Technology Editor

Tax season is a waking nightmare for Americans. Well, it is for me, at least. Between figuring out how to file, trying to understand my W2 and remembering how to do basic math, it can be extremely stressful. But there’s something even scarier lurking out there this time of year: tax scammers.

Yes, in case wringing your hands over the tax man weren’t enough, criminals are out there trying to swipe your hard earned cash and personal information from right under your nose.

Luckily, there are a few ways to spot these scams and protect yourself.

Fake IRS phone calls

One of the most common scams out there today is the IRS phone call. It usually goes something like this. You get a call from someone claiming to be from the IRS. They say you haven’t paid your taxes properly and owe Uncle Sam some serious cash. The scammer will then demand that you pay them immediately or they’ll send the feds over and have you arrested.

That’s some pretty scary stuff right there, especially if you have no idea what you’re doing when it comes to your taxes, and live in constant fear that you screwed up your last filing and are on the hook for thousands of dollars in fines.

The truth, though, is that the IRS will never contact you over the phone. What’s more, they won’t demand that you pay on the spot. The government actually gives you an opportunity to appeal the amount you owe.

And despite how scared you might be of the government, the IRS will never threaten to send in “Johnny Law” to arrest you for a first time tax problem. It should also go without saying that the feds will never ask for you to pay your taxes in gift cards. Yes, that’s seriously something criminals have done.

Phony IRS emails

These are just like those fake IRS phone calls, but in email form. Unfortunately, these can be even more convincing fakes, as they include things like official-looking IRS logos and the like.

Heck, I actually received a phony email from Britain’s version of the IRS, HM Revenue & Customs. Considering I live in Queens, New York, and not the U.K., though, that scam artist clearly wasn’t the brightest bulb in the bunch.

Outside of trying to get trick you out of your cash, these emails also come with the added risk of malware and ransomware if you download any files from them or click on any embedded links.

TL;DR: If you get a random email from the IRS, it’s not from the IRS.

W2 scammers

This one specifically targets companies’ payroll and human resources departments. The scheme works like this: Criminals send an email impersonating a company’s CEO or other executive officer to that organization’s payroll or HR professionals asking for personal information about employees.

According to the IRS, which issued a warning about this scam in January, criminals will request items like employee names, Social Security numbers and income data. The scammers will then try to file fraudulent tax returns in order to receive refunds.

According to a report by Sophos’ Naked Security Blog, Snap, Inc. fell for this exact scam back in 2016.

The non-existent federal student tax

Have you ever heard of the federal student tax? No? Good, because the IRS says there’s no such thing. But that doesn’t stop criminals from trying to trick people into believing there is such a tax and that they need to pay up for it now.

This works at the same way as the standard IRS scam. Victims receive a phone call or email from criminals impersonating the IRS telling them that they haven’t paid their student tax and that if they don’t they’ll be arrested or fined.

The crooks will then demand that the victim pays via their credit or debit card or with gift cards. Basically, if anyone tells you they’re trying to collect on the federal student tax, tell them to take a hike.

Verifying tax information

This particular scam sees criminals asking victims to verify items like the last four digits of their Social Security numbers, as the IRS said scammers attempted to do last year in the Washington, D.C. area, or other tax information. The scammers could also ask items like your bank account information or your full Social Security number.

Remember, the IRS won’t ask you for any such information over the phone. If the person is impersonating a tax preparer or preparation agency, your best bet is to hang up and call your actual tax agent or send your real tax professional an email asking if they need your information.

What to do if you suspect it’s a scam

If you receive a phone call that you think is a scam, hang up. If you receive an email you suspect is fraudulent don’t reply or click any embedded links. Instead, report it to the U.S. Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration at the TIGTA’s website, or by calling 1-800-366-4484.

And if someone asks you to pay your taxes in iTunes gift cards, please ignore them.

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Email Daniel at dhowley@yahoo-inc.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.