It's tax season, and scammers are up to their old tricks … and some new ones. So until the April 15 filing deadline for 2012 tax returns — and even afterward — beware of phone calls, text messages, faxes and especially emails claiming to be from the IRS or another tax agency and requesting your personal or financial information.
If you're contacted, you can bet that it's from a would-be identity thief who's trying to get your Social Security number or bank or credit card numbers. With your SSN in hand, the scammer may be able to file a bogus tax return to claim your refund. Or the information can be used to obtain cellphone service, credit cards, even loans in your name.
Here's what else you should know during tax season.
Trust the letter of the law
The official method of correspondence by the IRS and local or state tax offices is U.S. Postal Service-delivered letter. If you initiate contact by phone call or email, you may get a response that way. But the IRS rarely makes unexpected phone calls or sends unsolicited emails, faxes or text messages.
Know the bait
In past years, conning contact messages have included claims of a problem with your filed return. You're asked to "verify" (that is, provide) your personal information and are warned of a phony $10,000 fine for not filing on time.
If the message arrives by email or text, you may be asked to click on a link for more details. Don't. That can install "malware" programs in your computer to give the crooks remote access to your files and passwords or even let them take control of the device. This year, new ploys include:
- Bogus claims that you can get $80 for completing a customer survey for the IRS. The message asks for personal and financial information that can be used to steal your identity.
- Fictitious promises of refunds or rebates based on excess or withheld Social Security benefits or for the expired Economic Recovery Credit Program or recovery rebate credit. Each of these scams requests your SSN and other personal info.
- False claims that you can use Treasury Form 1080 to transfer funds from the Social Security Administration to the IRS, enabling a payout to you from the IRS.
- Offers of "free money" from the IRS or other government agencies. These lies circulate in flyers posted at churches and other gathering spots, and also in online advertisements. They often imply that tax credits or refunds are available without proof of eligibility.
Mind the mailbox
By now you should have received all forms necessary to file your tax return — W-2s, 1099s and statements from your banks, mortgage company, and investment and retirement accounts. They all include a trove of personal information that scammers would love to get their hands on. In January and February scammers often follow postal carriers to steal just-delivered forms out of household mailboxes. If you haven't received a particular form, call the organization that would have issued it. If you suspect it was stolen from your mailbox, contact the IRS Identity Protection Specialized Unit at 800-908-4490, extension 245.
If you're mailing your return, take it to a U.S. post office or a blue postal service mailbox in a busy location. Why? Scammers can easily steal outgoing returns if you put them in your home's curbside mailbox. And although it's rare, thieves sometimes "fish" outgoing returns from USPS mailboxes in deserted locations.
When in doubt, check it out
Whenever you're asked for personal identifiers related to your tax returns, even if by U.S. mail, ensure the request is legitimate before responding. For communications supposedly from the IRS, you can call the IRS hotline at 800-829-1040. For local or state tax offices, check your phone book for a number. Don't rely on any number that's included in the message you receive.
This time of year, scammers sometimes double as tax preparers, offering to do the forms for you or review them for inaccuracies. But what they're really after is all that personal information on your return. Be wary of claims of a faster refund. If you're using a new tax preparer, verify his or her license by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org (the IRS Office of Professional Responsibility) with the full name and address of the person or company. Of course, you'll want to carefully review any prepared return before it's submitted — and make sure it's signed by the preparer as well as you. And make sure it includes his or her ID number.
Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling. He writes the Scam Alert column for AARP.