Whenever there are large quantities of money flowing -- such as from American taxpayers to the IRS and vice versa -- there will inevitably be scam artists trying to make a quick buck. The good news is, the IRS does an excellent job of publishing information about current scams, and the vast majority can be avoided by simply knowing what to look out for.
With that in mind, here are some of the worst tax scams to be on the lookout for as 2015 comes to a close and you prepare to file your return.
1. Email phishing scams. Phishing refers to any scam carried out via an unsolicited email or fake website, and there are several examples related to taxes. For example, there have been many cases of phishing scams involving an official-looking email claiming to be from the IRS, which redirects to a fake (but authentic-looking) IRS website, where victims are prompted to enter personal information. To avoid these, it helps to be aware that any actual IRS website begins with www.IRS.gov, not a .com website, IRSgov.com, or any other variation. As an example of what to look for, here's an actual phishing email claiming to be from the IRS.
2. Phone scams. People claiming to be IRS agents will call and tell victims that they owe money to the IRS, which must be paid immediately through a wire transfer or prepaid debit card. The callers are often extremely convincing, may use fake IRS ID numbers, and might even know a substantial amount of personal information about their intended victims. However, the IRS will never call you to demand immediate payment, demand that you pay delinquent taxes without a chance to appeal, or require you to use any specific payment method. And the IRS will always mail you a bill first, before calling.
3. Phony tax returns. Thieves file made-up tax returns using other people's Social Security numbers and other personal information and will use these phony returns to request a refund, payable with a prepaid debit card that's easily converted to cash and is difficult to trace. Most victims don't realize it until they try to file their own legitimate refund, only to have the IRS rejected it. It can be difficult to prevent this type of fraud, since all that's needed is your Social Security number and birthdate, but the best way to avoid it is to file as early as possible during tax season, before thieves have a chance to. It's also important to safeguard all of your personal information on an ongoing basis, to prevent this from occurring in the future. To help, the IRS offers these tips:
- Don't carry your Social Security card in your wallet, or any other document with your Social Security number on it.
- Only give a business your SSN if absolutely necessary.
- Check your credit report regularly. (Note: you can do this for free once a year at www.annualcreditreport.com.)
- Look over your Social Security statement every year (available at www.ssa.gov).
- Be sure to use updated antivirus software.
4. Charity scams. In my opinion, this is the absolute worst, most disgusting tax scam of all. Groups will pretend to be charitable organizations to attract donations from good-hearted people who hope to receive tax deductions for their philanthropy. This is especially common after disasters, such as the flooding in South Carolina in October. In fact, the IRS issued a specific warning after this tragedy, advising that taxpayers take steps to ensure that their donations go to legitimate charities. To avoid having this happen to you, make sure to donate to charities whose names you recognize, or who you can verify as legitimate, tax-exempt organizations through this IRS tool.
5. Refund scams. Less-than-honest tax preparers will promise you a huge tax refund and may accomplish their goal by simply manufacturing tax credits and deductions on your return out of thin air. Later on, if the IRS audits your return, you'll have to pay the money back, and possibly a penalty as well. To avoid this problem, be wary of any tax preparer who promises you a refund before seeing your documentation, charges a fee as a percentage of your refund, or asks you to sign a blank return.
These are some of the worst tax scams you may have faced in 2015, but this isn't an exhaustive list. After all, some of the scams that may be perpetrated during the upcoming tax season might not even be invented yet. The best course of action is to educate yourself on what the IRS does and does not do, and to immediately report any suspicious tax-related situations.