Be on the lookout for these three tax scams

Protect yourself from being tricked and trapped by phishing, other threats

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In the ear­ly ’60s, Roger Maris and Mick­ey Man­tle hit a remark­able num­ber of home runs includ­ing a famous back-to-back four-bag­ger, which accord­ing to Yogi Berra was the rea­son he famous­ly quipped, “It’s déjà vu all over again.” While spring train­ing is still a few weeks away, we’re in the thick of tax sea­son, where legions of scam­mers are swing­ing for the back wall.

Adam Levin, chairman and co-founder of Credit.com and CyberScout (formerly IDT911)
Adam Levin, chair­man and co-founder of Credit.com and Cyber­Scout (for­mer­ly IDT911)

Accord­ing to the IRS, there was a 400 per­cent increase in phish­ing and mal­ware inci­dents dur­ing the 2016 tax sea­son. With the April 15 fil­ing dead­line still feel­ing as far away as the Green Mon­ster from home plate in Fen­way Park, Yogi Berra’s oth­er dictum—it ain’t over till it’s over—was nev­er more true.

My book, Swiped: How to Pro­tect Your­self in a World Full of Scam­mers, Phish­ers and Iden­ti­ty Thieves. goes into great detail about the var­i­ous tac­tics cyber crim­i­nals use to lure you, but the most impor­tant thing you can do to keep your­self scam-free this tax sea­son is edu­cate your­self on the most preva­lent risks out there.

As ever, the best advice is to file your tax­es as ear­ly as pos­si­ble. Tax-relat­ed iden­ti­ty theft is pri­mar­i­ly aimed at grab­bing your tax refund, and scam­mers are cre­ative, sophis­ti­cat­ed, per­sis­tent, and move very quick­ly once your infor­ma­tion is in hand. Armed with your Social Secu­ri­ty num­ber, date of birth and a few oth­er pieces of your per­son­al­ly iden­ti­fi­able infor­ma­tion, which if you have been involved in a data breach (you can check here to see warn­ing signs and view two of your cred­it scores for free on Credit.com) is like­ly avail­able on the Dark Web, they are furi­ous­ly fil­ing fraud­u­lent tax returns online.

Here are some oth­er things to bear in mind as the tax sea­son is upon us:

1. Phish­ing

There is no big­ger threat. The Oxford Eng­lish Dic­tio­nary rec­og­nized phish­ing as a word more than 10 years ago. By now it is a home truth that there are phish­ers out there. Cat­fish­ing is a reg­u­lar part of the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion, and phish­ing emails hit our inbox­es with the same reg­u­lar­i­ty as the var­i­ous pro­mo­tion­al emails we get from retail­ers and media out­lets.

Phish­ing emails take many forms, but they are most com­mon­ly point­ed at get­ting enough of your per­son­al­ly iden­ti­fi­able infor­ma­tion to com­mit fraud in your name (iden­ti­ty theft). They also com­mon­ly con­tain a link that places mal­ware on your com­put­er. These pro­grams can do a vari­ety of things (none of them good), rang­ing from recruit­ing your machine into a bot­net dis­trib­uted denial of ser­vice attack to plac­ing a key­stroke recorder on your com­put­er to access bank, cred­it union, cred­it card and bro­ker­age accounts to gath­er­ing all the per­son­al­ly iden­ti­fi­able infor­ma­tion on your hard dri­ve.

Here’s what you need to know: The IRS will nev­er send you an email to ini­ti­ate any busi­ness with you. Did you hear that? NEVER. If you receive an email from the IRS, delete it. End of sto­ry. Oh, and they will nev­er ini­ti­ate con­tact by phone either.

That said, there are oth­er sources of email that may have the look and feel of a legit­i­mate com­mu­ni­ca­tion that are tied to oth­er kinds of tax scams.

2. Crim­i­nal tax prepa­ra­tion scams

You learned how to do home­work in school for this rea­son: Not all tax pre­par­ers are the same and you must vet any­one you’re think­ing about using well before hand­ing over a shred of your per­son­al­ly iden­ti­fy­ing infor­ma­tion. Get at least three ref­er­ences, check online if there are any reviews, and call them.

Here’s why: At this time of the year, tax prep offices that are actu­al­ly fronts for crim­i­nal iden­ti­ty theft tend to pop up around the coun­try in strip malls and oth­er prop­er­ties and then prompt­ly dis­ap­pear a few days lat­er. Make sure the one you choose is legit.

3. Shady tax prepa­ra­tion

Phish­ing emails may not be aimed at steal­ing your per­son­al­ly iden­ti­fi­able infor­ma­tion or plant­i­ng mal­ware on your com­put­er. They sim­ply may be aimed at get­ting your atten­tion and busi­ness through entic­ing (and fraud­u­lent) offers of a real­ly big tax refund. While these pre­par­ers may get you a big refund, it could well be based on false infor­ma­tion.

Be on the look­out for ques­tions about busi­ness expens­es that you did not accrue, espe­cial­ly watch­ing out for sig­nals from your pre­par­er that you are giv­ing him or her a fig­ure that is “too low.”

Oth­er soft-cons of shady tax prepa­ra­tion include inflat­ed deduc­tions, claim­ing tax cred­its to which you are not enti­tled and declar­ing char­i­ta­ble dona­tions you did not make. Bot­tom line here: We’re all con­nect­ed these days, and chances are you will get caught, so just make sure you are work­ing with some­one who fol­lows the instruc­tions (yes, they’re com­pli­cat­ed, and that’s why it’s not a bad idea to get help).

As Yogi Berra said, “You can observe a lot by watch­ing.” Tax sea­son is stress­ful with­out the threat of tax-relat­ed iden­ti­ty theft and oth­er scams. It’s impor­tant to be vig­i­lant, because, to quote Yogi all over again, “If the world were per­fect, it wouldn’t be.”

Full dis­clo­sure: Cyber­Scout spon­sors Third­Cer­tain­ty. This sto­ry orig­i­nat­ed as an Op/Ed con­tri­bu­tion to Credit.com and does not nec­es­sar­i­ly rep­re­sent the views of the com­pa­ny or its part­ners.

More on iden­ti­ty theft:
Iden­ti­ty Theft: What You Need to Know
3 Dumb Things You Can Do With Email
How Can You Tell If Your Iden­ti­ty Has Been Stolen?