Teresa McUsic

Beware of phone and email tax scams during this filing season

The IRS says that phone calls or emails purporting to be from the government demanding money are likely to be scams.
The IRS says that phone calls or emails purporting to be from the government demanding money are likely to be scams. AP

If you’re getting phone calls, emails or texts from someone claiming to be the IRS, you’re not alone.

The IRS said such fraudulent practices are increasing dramatically.

The Treasury’s Inspector General for Tax Administration said last month it has received reports of almost 900,000 scam phone calls since October 2013. Even more disturbing, more than 5,000 victims have collectively paid more than $26.5 million as a result of the phone scam, according to the inspector general.

“Taxpayers across the nation face a deluge of these aggressive phone scams. Don’t be fooled by callers pretending to be from the IRS in an attempt to steal your money,” said IRS Commissioner John Koskinen. “We continue to say if you are surprised to be hearing from us, then you’re not hearing from us.”

The scam is often pretty sophisticated — altering the caller ID number to make it look the like IRS or another agency is calling, using IRS titles and fake badge numbers. Scammers may also know your name, address and other personal information to make the call sound legitimate.

The calls are often intimidating, bullying you to pay a bogus tax bill immediately by sending cash, usually through a prepaid debit card or wire transfer, the IRS said. They threaten arrests, deportation or revocation of licenses if they don’t get the money.

The scam involves many things that the IRS said it would never do, including:

▪  Calling to demand immediate payment. The agency would not call about taxes owed without first having mailed you a bill.

▪  Demanding that you pay taxes without offering the opportunity to question or appeal the amount they say you owe.

▪  Requiring you to use a specific payment method for your taxes, such as a prepaid debit card.

▪  Asking for credit or debit card numbers over the phone.

▪  Threatening to bring in local police or other law enforcement to have you arrested.

If you do get one of these phone calls, the IRS suggests that you not give out any information and hang up immediately. Contact the inspector general at 800-366-4484 or use their IRS Impersonation Scam Reporting web page at www.treasury.gov. Also report the incident to the Federal Trade Commission at www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov. Both will want the phone number of the scammer.

Unsolicited phone calls are not the only way scammers operate, the IRS said. Email scams, called phishing, also target people with bogus tax bills. The agency said this week that it has seen a 400 percent increase in phishing and malware incidents so far this tax season.

In the first six weeks of this year, 1,389 phishing and malware incidents have been reported to the IRS, topping the total for all reported incidents in 2014 and halfway to the 2015 total.

The scam emails look like they are from the IRS or another government agency and seek information related to refunds, filing status, confirming personal information, ordering transcripts and verifying PIN numbers.

The emails then direct you to a website set up to look like IRS.gov that asks for your Social Security number and other identifying information. These sites also may carry malware, which can infect your computer and allow criminals to access your files or track your keystrokes to gain information.

Bottom line: The IRS said it generally does not initiate contact with taxpayers by email to request personal or financial information.

If you receive an email that appears to be from IRS or related organization like the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System, send it to phishing@IRS.gov.

Other scams to avoid from the annual IRS Dirty Dozen Tax Scams:

Identity theft. This occurs when someone uses your stolen Social Security number to file a tax return and claim the refund. In the past three years, the criminal investigations arm of the IRS has helped convict around 2,000 identity thieves, including 776 cases last year resulting in 774 sentencings.

New security measures are now required for tax software, but the IRS recommends protecting your Social Security number and not responding to calls, emails or texts from entities looking for the number.

Fake charities. Scam charities often have a name similar to a legitimate charity. To check the qualified status of a charity, IRS.gov has a search feature called Exempt Organizations (EO) Select Check.

False deductions or credits. Be careful you don’t overstate charitable contribution deductions, pad your claimed business expenses or try to get credits you are not entitled to like the Earned Income Tax Credit or child tax credits. Not only may the IRS audit you through its automated system, but the civil penalties are costly and criminal prosecution could lead to jail time.

Inflated tax refunds. Unscrupulous preparers often promise big refunds based on federal benefits or tax credits. These scam artists use flyers, advertisements, phony storefronts and word of mouth to get victims. They prey on low-income families, non-English speakers and the elderly. Taxpayers are legally responsible for what’s on their returns, however, even if it was prepared by someone else.

So be careful who you pick to do your taxes. Use the IRS tool www.irs.gov/chooseataxpro.

Teresa McUsic’s column appears Saturdays. TMcUsic@SavvyConsumer.net