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With tax-filing season near, scammers are gearing up

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While many Americans are busy decking the halls, crooks are hard at work hatching new tax-related scams.

That’s because scammers (like some eager Americans and tax preparers) are now gearing up for filing season -- which each year brings a spike in schemes aimed at cheating taxpayers out of money and getting them to part with personal information, according to the IRS. The agency is holding a public-awareness campaign this week to disseminate information about common scams and tips for steering clear of them.

“Some people file their taxes Jan. 1, even before the official start of filing season, especially if they’re getting a refund. They’re really proactive, but so are the criminals,” said Kay Bell, a tax blogger and author of “The Truth About Paying Fewer Taxes.”

The IRS is warning consumers to watch out for so-called phishing scams -- which are often emails, texts or phone calls aimed at tricking people into turning over sensitive personal information.

Treasury Dept. issues warning about widesprea... 01:52

Scammers may try to use that data to file fraudulent returns (at the state or federal levels) or commit other types of crimes. Refund fraud is a form of identity theft, which hits millions of Americans each year and is one of the most common types of tax scams.

Last filing season, the IRS recorded a roughly 400 percent surge in tax-related incidents involving phishing and malware (software that can infect computers and allow criminals to access files or track keystrokes).

Phishing emails, or texts, are often meant to resemble official communications from the IRS or others in the tax industry, such as tax-software companies. They may ask for information (such as confirmation of personal data) or try to get recipients to click on links to bogus official-looking sites that carry malware or request Social Security numbers and other personal information.

Many taxpayers have been on the receiving end of IRS impersonation scams carried out by phone or mail. These are usually designed to scare consumers into paying bogus tax bills or fictitious taxes, or they’re yet another way to get them to part with personal information, including bank account or credit card numbers.

Phone scam targets students 04:07

The IRS has seen a rash of phone scams targeting students and their parents. Crooks have been demanding payment of fictitious taxes, including a nonexistent “federal student tax,” and threatening to report students who resist to police.

But the IRS says it will never call to demand immediate payment using a specific payment method (such as a prepaid debit card, a gift card or wire transfer) or threaten to have consumers arrested for not paying immediately. Generally, the IRS will first mail you a bill if you owe any taxes.

Tax preparers, who hold reams of sensitive client data, are also prime targets for scammers. Lately, some have fallen victim to email scams that infected their computers with malware, allowing cyberthieves to track their keystrokes. According to the IRS, the emails appeared to be from tax software firms and asked recipients to install updates by clicking on links.

Staying ahead of the latest tax scams can seem like playing a game of whack-a-mole. That’s why it’s best for consumers to simply be dubious of any tax-related letters, emails or phone calls, said Bell.

If you think you owe taxes, it’s best to contact the IRS directly and deal with the matter, rather than rather than leaving yourself vulnerable to scams and risking IRS penalties. If you’re up to date on your taxes, it’s probably best to simply ignore tax-related phone calls, she added.

When in doubt, contact the IRS directly, Bell repeated, and report any phishing or other scams to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration and the Federal Trade Commission.

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