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As tax season peaks, beware phishing calls

Tax season is once again in full swing. This means, of course, that people are busily gathering tax documents, preparing tax returns, sending in tax payments and awaiting refunds. It also means that the criminals are once again out in full force trying to separate people from their well-deserved and hard-earned money by taking advantage of the cache of fear that simply hearing "IRS" evokes in some people.

This year's popular criminal scam involves the practice of "phishing" consumers and tricking them into revealing important personal information that could be used to commit identity theft or to transfer funds. The information includes:

  • Social security numbers
  • Bank account information
  • Credit card numbers
  • Passwords / PIN numbers

The scam scenario

Most of these phishing schemes are done over the phone or via email. When calling, criminals may "spoof" the phone numbers of actual IRS agents or field offices in order to make the calls seem official and above-board. Once the target victim picks up the phone, the criminal will usually present him or herself as an IRS agent or official, and could include information like an official-sounding title or a badge number in order to sound more credible.

The scammer will then tell the victim that he or she owes back taxes that are due immediately, and may request that the payment be made in a specific manner, such as in cash, via wire transfer or in pre-paid gift or debit cards (iTunes cards are particularly popular amongst these thieves). The criminal will often threaten the victim with arrest or seizure of property unless payment is made right away, thus creating fear and making the victim more likely to cooperate without asking too many questions.

Once the victim has made the payment, the criminals may call back and attempt to get more money by claiming there was a miscalculation or some sort of clerical error.

Red flags

Even though these calls may initially seem like they are coming from a legitimate source (particularly if the number of a real agent or field office has been spoofed), there are, thankfully, several red flags that can be tip-offs to help prevent people from falling for such scams.

First and foremost, the IRS will only very rarely call a taxpayer on the phone without first sending one or more tax bills to their home address. The IRS will also never request that an immediate payment be made in the form of a debit or gift card. After all, the government doesn't have much use for iTunes cards.

Furthermore, the IRS will not:

  • Demand immediate payment in order to stave off arrest or law enforcement involvement; the IRS has lengthy appeals procedures that must be followed before any criminal charges could be brought
  • Seize your property without due process
  • Ask for your social security, credit card or debit card numbers over the phone (after all, they already have your social security number, since you provide it when you get a job or file tax returns)
  • Require payment in a specific format to avoid a collections lawsuit

If you suspect that a caller is actually attempting to scam or phish you, hang up immediately. Report the phone number to the IRS or to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) via their "IRS impersonation scam reporting" page. When you legitimately owe taxes (or think you may) and are concerned about possible consequences of underpayment or late payment, contact an experienced local tax attorney.

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