When scammers go “phishing,” the bait they often use to hook victims into identity theft is the Internal Revenue Service.
The IRS is perhaps the government agency most commonly mimicked in fraudulent attempts to get your personal information. In the past three years alone, some 33,000 e-mails falsely using the IRS’ name were forwarded by recipients to firstname.lastname@example.org, the agency’s collection bin for such conning correspondence. That large number represents just a fraction of others that are never forwarded. Although most IRS-implicated scams come via e-mail, sometimes they are made by telephone or unsolicited faxes or are delivered in a letter that may include a counterfeit check.
“We see these scams all year round,” says IRS spokeswoman Michelle Lamishaw. “But they tend to occur more frequently during tax season.” In other words, with the April 15 tax filing deadline approaching, expect a scammer pretending to be the taxman to try and fleece you.
The reality: The IRS as a rule doesn’t send e-mail—especially on personal tax issues—so any incoming message alleging to be from the IRS is likely to be a scam, says Lamishaw. If you receive such an e-mail, don’t open attachments or click on the links; that could download malware to infect your computer with a virus designed to steal personal data. Instead, simply forward that e-mail to email@example.com.
The IRS also doesn’t send unsolicited faxes and rarely contacts taxpayers via telephone. Most official correspondence is made through U.S. mail and includes IRS contact information that can be verified through the phone book or on the IRS website.
Still, some IRS-related scams are convincing. Among those making the rounds this tax season:
• Fax us your facts. This scam comes via e-mail, sent by firstname.lastname@example.org. Under an authentic IRS banner, a letter (signed by made-up official Laura Stevens) asks recipients to complete an attached W-4100B2 form and fax it to a given number. In some versions, the return fax number has a New York-based 646 area code; in others it has an area code outside the United States, which can trigger high telephone charges. The attached form, an official IRS document, asks for Social Security and bank account numbers, and a photocopy of the recipient’s passport or driver’s license “for proper identification.” The 646 fax number was operating when Scam Alert tried it Feb. 17 after obtaining this bogus e-mail.
• Recovery rebate credit cons. This one-time benefit is for people who didn’t receive their full economic stimulus payment last year. But don’t believe claims that you need to complete special forms (again, usually asking for your personal information). “You don’t need to send any information; you simply need to file your tax return,” says Lamishaw. “Your eligibility is based on that.”