With February upon us, many Mainers are thinking about income taxes and wondering, can the filing deadline really be just a couple of months away?
It is, and the income tax fraud perpetrators are hard at work. Don’t let them catch you in one of their scams, like the fake email claiming it has information that you must deal with right now. They might say they have ways you can get extra deductions; they might even claim to have a refund check for you.
Or, instead of the carrot, they may wield a stick. The scary subject line might read, “FY 2010 and 2011 tax documents; accountant’s letter.” Uh-oh, an audit must be just around the corner … or it’s the scammers, acting tough and hoping we’ll open that attachment and turn loose the Trojan that will give them access to our computers and everything in them.
There are so many scams out there that the Internal Revenue Service has a website ( http://www.irs.gov/uac/Report-Phishing) devoted to keeping scammers at bay. Before reviewing some pointers, let’s look at some of the IRS’s top 10 scams from last year.
Identity theft tops the list. If the IRS notifies you that you’ve filed two tax returns or that you appear to have received wages from an unknown employer, you may have had your identity stolen. Thieves may have filed a tax return in your name and claimed a refund.
Last winter the IRS went after more than 100 people in 23 states suspected of being identity thieves. In 2011, the agency reported more than 900,000 fraudulent returns relating to identity theft. The IRS has been training thousands of employees to help deter such crimes.
Also on the IRS top 10 list is the phishing scam. It’s really the same old ploy to get you to click on an attachment, which starts a program that wreaks havoc on your computer. Resist the urge. DON’T click on attachments in unsolicited emails. DON’T click on attachments in email from people you know if something looks suspicious. And DON’T click on attachments in email from companies you do business with; it may be a look-alike that crooks have created to fool you. Call the company, or do a manual download rather than clicking.
Watch out for fraudulent tax preparers. Some of them charge big fees with promises of a big refund. They may prompt you to “get all you can” by cutting corners or giving the IRS false information, all of which can land you in jail.
Some scammers claim they can help you move money offshore; if you don’t follow the law exactly, you could be looking at a tax evasion charge. Or, the scammer might give you an account number with instructions to wire your money to it; you may find out too late that it’s the scammer’s account and your money is gone.
Another red flag is a promise of “free money” from the IRS. The scammer will promise a few simple tricks making tax return preparation simpler and prompting larger refunds. The “tips” may be weak or just plain wrong, and the “free” money goes to the crook.
Remember, the IRS does not use email, text messaging or social media to get personal or financial information from filers. If you get a fax claiming to be from the IRS, contact the agency to make sure it’s real. To do that, or for a tax-related question, you can reach the IRS through this website: http://www.irs.gov/uac/How-to-Contact-the-IRS-1.
One bit of friendly advice: If you file electronically, keep a hard copy for your files. And for low- and moderate-income households, there’s free tax preparation help available through the United Way of Eastern Maine ( http://www.unitedwayem.org/content/4057/eastern-maine-cash) and Volunteers of America ( http://www.voanne.org/Services/TaxAssistance).
Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, visit http://necontact.wordpress.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
byline: Russ Van Arsdale, Executive Director, Northeast CONTACT