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File your tax return before a con artist does it for you

Beware of these common tax scams
  • Once scammers get enough of your personal info, they can use it to file your tax return
  • They use malware to watch keystrokes and steal info through fake emails, texts, websites and social media
  • And they have a variety of ways to get their hands on the refund that should have gone to you

Taxpayer, beware: If the IRS isn't accepting your tax return, a con artist may have already filed it for you.

The IRS is warning taxpayers, businesses and tax professionals to watch out for predators phishing for personal information during tax season. Scam artists can also use malware to watch keystrokes and steal information through fake emails, text messages, websites and social media.

If scammers get their hands on your data or a previous tax return, they can use the information to fill out their own returns using your Social Security number. If you file your return after the con artist, the IRS may not accept it because it has already been filed.

If the IRS processes the phony return, the scammers can siphon your refund into their own bank accounts or, in some schemes, have it direct-deposited into your bank account to avoid IRS suspicion.

Scammers posing as debt-collection agency officials or IRS representatives will then call you to claim the refund as an "error." They often threaten to arrest victims, deport them or charge them with criminal fraud to get them to comply out of fear.

"They're getting people into what we're calling the 'emotional frenzy,' where they're not thinking rationally, they're thinking emotionally and following the instructions of the scammer," said Amy Nofziger, director of fraud victim support at the AARP.

It may seem like a convoluted plan, but the ploy was working enough for scammers to use it, according to the IRS. 

In truth, the IRS will never threaten taxpayers, nor will it demand immediate payment. The agency also cannot "blacklist" Social Security numbers. Nor does it accept payment by wire transfer, prepaid debit cards, gift cards or cashier's check. And the agency always sends a letter, rather than make a phone call, to first contact taxpayers.

Still, such government employee imposter scams have become so common that consumer fraud was the top complaint in 2018 to the Federal Trade Commission.

For tax preparers, it's just one more reason to file early during a fraught tax season.

Justice Department cracking down on financial scams targeting the elderly

Don't pick up the phone

Often the first line of defense for consumers is to not pick up their phones, unless they know exactly where the call is coming from. Con artists, armed with the victim's personal information, will often authenticate their facade as government officials by revealing the taxpayer's address or the last four digits of their Social Security number.

Others can "spoof," or change, their caller ID numbers, so it seems to the victim as if the IRS or a federal agency is actually calling. Nofziger said consumers should report scams right away because they're crimes.

About 14,700 victims have lost more than $72 million to tax-related phone scams since 2013, according to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration.

"A great barrier between you and the scammer," Nofziger said, "is to not even allow them to get in touch with you."

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