In the never-ending war of cyber criminals vs. the average American, certain times of the year see a surge in new scams, phishing emails, etc. One of these is over the holiday season, when fake Fed Ex and Amazon emails abound. The other season when the bad guys ramp up their nefarious activities? Tax time. According to the IRS website (irs.gov), there has been approximately a 400% surge in phishing and malware incidents so far in the 2016 tax season.
These scams come in all forms: emails, text messages, and phone calls. There are several recurring themes that are used to attempt to trick even savvy consumers. One is to lure the consumer in with false promises. After all, who wouldn’t want their refund faster, their return prepared for free, or to quickly rectify an error that could cause problems down the road? The other tactic is fear, and this one normally targets the older population. On a phone call, the scammer will impersonate the IRS and threaten everything from arrest, deportation or suspension of a business or driver’s license if the taxes due are not paid immediately. And then, they ask for your personal bank information.
The basic ways to protect yourself and your loved ones during tax season do not vary greatly from the precautions that should be taken all year long: Never click on a link in an email or text message, open a browser and navigate to the site on your own. Never share your banking information, Social Security number, or other personal information over the phone or via email or text messages. Additionally, makes wise choices when it comes to choosing your tax preparer or tax preparation software. Ensure that anyone preparing your taxes has the proper credentials, and vet them through friends and family. There are a few red flags that can help you spot a bogus tax preparer, including someone who promises a refund without looking at all your information. “When they don’t want a lot of documentation, that’s a big red flag they’re not on the up and up.” (Kay Bell, tax expert, quoted in “Business Insider” magazine. A legit tax preparer should ask for: W2’s, children’s Social Security Numbers, Investor income, pay stubs and other employment info, etc. Other red flags mentioned in this article include twisting old tax laws to increase a refund, poor grammar skills, and inflation of charitable deductions.
If you choose to use tax preparation software, choose a well-known program that is valid and secure. Don’t file your return over shared wireless access points, and file early. Use a desktop or laptop computer, avoiding the mobile apps for use on a cell phone or tablet. Make sure the computer you use is up to date with virus scanning and anti-malware tools. It is a good idea to perform a scan just before filing your taxes as an extra precaution. Always back up your personal tax information to a USB drive or external hard drive prior to transmitting them electronically.
Remember also, the IRS will NEVER ask for your personal information over the phone, and they will never demand payment via a phone call or text message without having sent a bill (or several) in advance. By following the advice of the experts, tax filing time can be safe and worry-free for all involved. (unless you end up owing the IRS money, but that is another story!)