Be Aware of Tax Time Scams

The Internal Revenue Service has issued its annual “Dirty Dozen” ranking of tax scams, reminding taxpayers to use caution during tax season to protect themselves against a wide range of schemes ranging from identity theft to return preparer fraud.

An IRS notice informing a taxpayer that more than one return was filed in the taxpayer’s name or that the taxpayer received wages from an unknown employer may be the first tip off the individual receives that he or she has been victimized.  While identity theft complaints increased last year and complaints pertaining to stolen tax returns have increased significantly—from 11,010 complaints in 2005 to 33,774 in 2009, according to an analysis of more than 1.4 million identity theft records from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. That’s nearly 300%.

Be aware of these scams this tax season:

Phishing scams. If you receive an unsolicited email that appears to be from either the IRS or an organization closely linked to the IRS, such as the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System (EFTPS), report it by sending it to Never respond or click on links within unsolicited emails requesting that you enter personal data or visit a website to update account information, especially from the IRS as they do not send emails out to consumer.

IRS scams. Beware of scammers posing as IRS agents. They contact targets via phone or email, and are often prepared with a few personal details, which they use to convince targets of their IRS affiliation. This data may actually have been gleaned from public records or even your trash. This type of scammer may offer you a tax refund, and will generally pressure you to comply with their request.

Rogue tax preparers. Questionable return preparers have been known to skim off their clients’ refunds, charge inflated fees for return preparation services and attract new clients by promising guaranteed or inflated refunds.  Anyone can hang out a shingle and claim to be a credible accountant. That shouldn’t be enough to persuade you to disclose all your financial records.

Signals to watch for when you are dealing with an unscrupulous return preparer would include that they:

Do not sign the return or place a Preparer Tax identification Number on it.

Do not give you a copy of your tax return.

Promise larger than normal tax refunds.

Charge a percentage of the refund amount as preparation fee.

Require you to split the refund to pay the preparation fee.

Add forms to the return you have never filed before.

Encourage you to place false information on your return, such as false income, expenses and/or credits.

Here are some suggestions to protect yourself and make sure that you get your return:

Protect your data. This means that all sensitive documents, including anything that includes tax or investment records, credit, debit, or bank account numbers, or a Social Security number, must be secured from the moment they arrive in your mailbox. Secure means that your mailbox and file cabinet have locks, or even storing important documents in a fire-resistant safe.

Shred non-essential paperwork. Check with your accountant to determine what you need and what you don’t. Use a cross-cut shredder to destroy unneeded documents.

Go paperless. Whenever possible, opt to receive electronic statements in your inbox. The less paper in your life, the better.

File early. The earlier you file, the more quickly you thwart any criminal’s attempt to file on your behalf and collect your refund. Only file your tax return with the help of a local, trusted, professional accountant whom you know, like, and trust. If you file online, you should use a secure PC and a secure Internet connection. If you submit your taxes through the mail, you should bring them directly to your local post office.

Protect your PC. A computer’s operating system should always be updated with the latest critical security patches and you should use comprehensive security software that provides antivirus, anti-spyware, anti-phishing, anti-spam and a 2-way firewall.

Robert Siciliano is an Online Security Evangelist to McAfee. See him discussing identity theft on YouTube.(Disclosures)