When scammers go "phishing," the bait they often use to hook victims into identity theft is the Internal Revenue Service.
The IRS is perhaps the government agency most commonly mimicked in fraudulent attempts to get your personal information. In the past three years alone, some 33,000 e-mails falsely using the IRS' name were forwarded by recipients to firstname.lastname@example.org, the agency's collection bin for such conning correspondence. That large number represents just a fraction of others that are never forwarded. Although most IRS-implicated scams come via e-mail, sometimes they are made by telephone or unsolicited faxes or are delivered in a letter that may include a counterfeit check.
"We see these scams all year round," says IRS spokeswoman Michelle Lamishaw. "But they tend to occur more frequently during tax season." In other words, with the April 15 tax filing deadline approaching, expect a scammer pretending to be the taxman to try and fleece you.
The reality: The IRS as a rule doesn't send e-mail—especially on personal tax issues—so any incoming message alleging to be from the IRS is likely to be a scam, says Lamishaw. If you receive such an e-mail, don't open attachments or click on the links; that could download malware to infect your computer with a virus designed to steal personal data. Instead, simply forward that e-mail to email@example.com.
The IRS also doesn't send unsolicited faxes and rarely contacts taxpayers via telephone. Most official correspondence is made through U.S. mail and includes IRS contact information that can be verified through the phone book or on the IRS website.
Still, some IRS-related scams are convincing. Among those making the rounds this tax season:
• Fax us your facts. This scam comes via e-mail, sent by firstname.lastname@example.org. Under an authentic IRS banner, a letter (signed by made-up official Laura Stevens) asks recipients to complete an attached W-4100B2 form and fax it to a given number. In some versions, the return fax number has a New York-based 646 area code; in others it has an area code outside the United States, which can trigger high telephone charges. The attached form, an official IRS document, asks for Social Security and bank account numbers, and a photocopy of the recipient's passport or driver's license "for proper identification." The 646 fax number was operating when Scam Alert tried it Feb. 17 after obtaining this bogus e-mail.
• Recovery rebate credit cons. This one-time benefit is for people who didn't receive their full economic stimulus payment last year. But don't believe claims that you need to complete special forms (again, usually asking for your personal information). "You don't need to send any information; you simply need to file your tax return," says Lamishaw. "Your eligibility is based on that."
• More stimulus money? Yes and no. Retirees and other Social Security beneficiaries will receive a so-called senior stimulus payment—$250 for individuals and $500 for couples—that is part of the economic stimulus package recently signed by President Obama. No action is required to get those checks, which the Social Security Administration expects to finish mailing in late May. But don't believe false promises in e-mails, letters or online advertisements claiming you can get a secondary stimulus check of $7,000 to $12,000; sometimes an authentic-looking but bogus check is included. These ruses typically instruct you to call a telephone number—an excuse to get your personal information—or purchase a hard-to-cancel subscription kit to get money from alleged government programs.
• Free File finagling. Don't be fooled by counterfeit websites that spoof Free File, or any of the IRS' other online filing offerings. Free File offers free tax preparation and online filing for those making $56,000 or less per year. Other free online filing options have been expanded this year for those with higher incomes. But there's only one place to access any of them: www.irs.gov.
• Due date deception. Most scams improperly implicating the IRS involve a notice that some type of refund is due to you, says Lamishaw. "That is why we see a lot of refund scams after April 15 … and why citizens need to keep their guard up year round." If you have any questions about a refund, call 1-800-829-1040 (hearing-impaired consumers should call 1-800-829-4059) or visit the IRS website.
Unfortunately, the list of possible cons goes on. "We continue to see various iterations of the same scam," Lamishaw says. "One will die down and a similar one will appear." The IRS provides information on past scams that could occur again. It also offers tips on preventing and reporting phishing attempts that implicate the IRS.
Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life (AARP Books/Sterling).