From Tax 'Phishing' Scams to Phony Product Reviews: How Not to Be Duped Online

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PhishingIt's nearly time for us to pay -- or be paid by -- Uncle Sam, and that means it's also high season for tax-related phishing scams, when rogue websites masquerade as legitimate tax prep providers, banks or even the IRS to con us out of our user names, passwords and credit card information.

But phishing isn't limited to tax season. Web hucksters work year-round, and they wear many disguises. These fraudsters impersonate everything from legitimate airlines and mail carrier companies to financial institutions.

Online scamming can also take a more innocuous form -- but one that's worthy of forewarning all the same: phony product and service reviews. While fake reviews on sites like Amazon are nothing new, companies are now offering consumers cash to rave about their goods.

Here are some tips on how to avoid being duped.

Identifying the Fake Tax Man

Keep your eyes peeled for emails that seem to come from known tax-prep software companies such as TurboTax and TaxACT. Scammers, who hijack logos from these companies to make their emails appear authentic, will often include generic salutations like "dear sir/madam," or "dear customer" rather than your name, which is a scam tip off, Christine Frietchen, editor in chief of ConsumerSearch.com, a review aggregator that compares product ratings from experts and user reviews, tells DailyFinance.

Tax-season scammers will also assume the identity of a trusted financial institution, be it a retail bank like Chase or an investment bank such as Vanguard, Frietchen says.

Beware of links and attachments in emails: They're a giveaway for fraudsters. Financial institutions won't send you attachments unless they reflect documents you specifically requested, Frietchen says.

Phishing emails will often urge recipients to click on a link or open an attachment with messages like, "Here's your important tax document ... we need you to confirm your data or otherwise we can't issue your refund," or, "we urgently need more information or your tax return will be late," Frietchen says. "Because there's a timely relevance to the message, they can sound more legitimate." Don't take the bait.

The IRS itself is alerting filers to be on the lookout for a new, bogus email alerting recipients that they'll be penalized up to $10,000 for failing to file their tax return on time, with a false Jan. 31 deadline. It might include the subject line: "Penalty for not filing tax return on time."

"The IRS does not initiate contact with taxpayers by email or any social media tool to request personal information," says IRS.gov.

For a comprehensive list of common tax scams, check here. You can also forward suspect emails to phishing@irs.gov.

Sniffing Out Common Phishing Tactics


Most scam emails, whether they pretend to come from a reputable shipping company like FedEx, a bank or airline, share some common themes.

If you receive an email from a company you've never done business with, be wary.

Scam emails are designed to elicit a knee-jerk reaction in recipients -- "to make you think there's trouble with your account, an order or your personal finances," Frietchen says.

Poor grammar is another tip-off. Because many scammers are based in foreign countries, the writing style they use in their bogus emails is often stilted or just wrong. They won't phrase things the way a native English speaker would, Frietchen says.

If you see others CC'ed in a email, be suspicious. A legitimate email from an institution will not copy others in an email intended for you.

Sussing Out Suspect Reviews

Businesses have long been guilty of trying to tout their products with glowing reviews posted by their own employees impersonating thrilled shoppers. But as The New York Times reported last month, the practice has taken on a new dimension. In December, merchant VIP Deals was exposed for offering a full refund for its Kindle Fire case in exchange for a favorable review of the product on Amazon.com

The content and language of "five-star fakes" tend to follow a pattern, Frietchen says.

Over-the-top accolades about a product or a place, such as a hotel, should be considered suspect, especially when they include superlatives such as "great" or "wonderful," she says.

Another tip off is the use of an entire product name and model number in the description, such as the Cuisinart 57321 coffeemaker instead of simply, the Cuisinart coffeemaker.

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Trust your gut if it seems the language used in a review sounds off, Frietchen says. "If the review doesn't sound natural when you read it out loud, that's a red flag."

If a review seems fishy, cut and paste a few sentences from it into Google to see if it comes up elsewhere. "Companies that are generating fake reviews are interested in maximizing their effort, so it's likely they might be using that same review on other sites."

According to Cornell University researchers who studied patterns of both fake and real reviews and devised software to detect them, phony reviews often include details about the circumstances of a purchase and irrelevant details, like, "I was at this hotel with my husband for a wonderful 25th anniversary vacation," Frietchen says.

"Essentially, a real person writing a review probably knows that details about their darling husband or adorable kids aren't relevant, while those writing fake reviews seem to think those kinds of details give a review personality," she says.

By contrast the Cornell research showed that, when it came to reviews of hotels, "real reviews tend to focus more on details about the space, and ease of use/convenience. For instance, is the bathroom cramped or spacious; are there enough hangers in the closet; are the elevators slow," Frietchen says.

You'll also find fake reviews for commonly used services and small businesses such as contractors, electricians and plumbers. When you're sussing out the quality of a service provider, "Triangulate your sources," Jon Yates, author of What's Your Problem? Get Through Red Tape, Challenge The System and Get Your Money Back, who writes the consumer help column, What's Your Problem? for The Chicago Tribune, tells DailyFinance. Visit multiple review sites such as Yelp, Angie's List as well as The Better Business Bureau.

While sites like Yelp and Angie's List work to screen out phony reviews, "no filter is going to screen them all out," he says. So, be wary of reviewers on these sites who have only posted one or two reviews -- that makes them automatically suspect, Yates says. Also, if you notice a uniformity in the number of stars a reviewer gives a variety of different services, that could also signal the source is a fraud, he says.

Ask a company you're considering for customer references so you can speak directly to people who've used their services. While a business will of course only offer up customers who'll talk favorably about their experience, a live conversation is still a good way to vet a potential service provider, Yates says.
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