5 Dangerous Tax Scams That You Need to Watch Out For
1. Scammers Phishing for E-Filing Information
The rise in electronic filing of tax returns has opened up the door to many new ways to run tax scams. One recent attempt involves fake emails purporting to be from the IRS and including links to a website that's intended to mirror the official IRS site, with the idea that you need to provide new information in order to update your e-filing account.
The danger here is that if you enter personal information on the fake site, scammers will have it and then potentially be able to steal your identity. The key here is to know that the IRS never sends emails to taxpayers requesting personal or financial information, so if you get something that looks like one, you can be assured that it's fake.
2. Phone Fraud From IRS Impersonators
Email isn't the only way criminals try to attack your identity. The IRS recently described a phone scam involving people claiming to be IRS employees, even adjusting their caller-ID information to make it appear that they're legitimate federal workers. They then say that you owe the IRS money and that you have to repay it using a prepaid debit card or wire transfer.
Again, beating this scam involves knowing what the IRS will and will not do. The IRS doesn't use telephone calls unless you've first received a bill for unpaid taxes, and it will never force you to use specific payment methods -- especially those that happen to be untraceable. Moreover, threatening tactics like bringing in law enforcement aren't part of the IRS' arsenal of debt-collection capabilities.
3. Helping You Until It Hurts
The IRS Taxpayer Advocate is a legitimate part of the tax agency that helps taxpayers understand and resolve outstanding tax issues. But a scam from last year took advantage of the Taxpayer Advocate's good name, as criminals sent fake emails offering help from the Taxpayer Advocate's office. Unsuspecting taxpayers then go to fake websites and enter personal information, opening the door to identity theft.
Like the rest of the IRS, the Taxpayer Advocate doesn't initiate conversations with taxpayers by email. If you haven't sought out the Taxpayer Advocate's help, then it won't offer that help unilaterally -- and you shouldn't fall for any scam that suggests otherwise.
4. Refunds That Are Too Good to Be True
Some scam artists pose as tax preparers, offering large tax refunds even to those who had no idea that they might qualify for money back from the government. Given the extensive marketing campaigns from legitimate tax preparation firms making similar claims, it's easy to see how one might fall for these criminals' promises. Yet in the end, you can end up making false claims for tax credits like the Earned Income Credit, various credits for education, or even fictitious Social Security benefits. Meanwhile, in the time it takes for the IRS to process your return and issue a bill for unpaid taxes, your "preparer" is long gone.
Your best solution is to use only reputable professional preparers for your tax return. Moreover, if your preparer says you might be owed a big refund, make sure you take the time to understand the tax laws in question before you start spending that money.
5. Criminals Targeting Your Tax Preparer
You're not the only potential weak link in the chain of custody for your tax return. Some scammers instead look at the professionals who prepare tax returns, looking to hit the jackpot by getting access to information from hundreds of clients at a single time.
One recent scam involves an email that purports to request updated information for use with the IRS' e-services portal. By collecting usernames, passwords, and electronic filing identification numbers, the criminals hope to penetrate professionals' accounts and gather personal and financial information for use in further identity theft. If you use an outside tax preparer, be sure to pass this warning on so that you avoid taking collateral damage.
You can usually avoid tax scams just by being aware of them. Still, as criminals get more sophisticated, you'll need to be increasingly careful to make sure you don't become the next victim of identity theft.
Motley Fool contributor Dan Caplinger has been the victim of identity theft and knows many others who've suffered the same fate. You can follow him on Twitter @DanCaplinger or on Google+. To read about our favorite high-yielding dividend stocks for any investor, check out our free report.