Columnists

BBB Scam Alert: Protect Yourself From Tax Scams

Tax scams are among the most stubborn cons out there. They reappear often, each time with a slightly different spin. The main theme is scammers posing as the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) trying to trick people into either paying up or sharing personal information.

IRS impersonation scams most often start with a phone call and take two basic forms. In the first version, the IRS “agent” says you owe back taxes and pressures you into paying by prepaid debit card or wire transfer. If you don’t comply, the scammer threatens you with arrest and fines. In the other version, scammers claim they are issuing tax refunds and ask you for personal information so they can send your refund. This information can later be used for identity theft. Scammers also use this approach to target college students by claiming a “federal student tax” has not been paid.

You are pressured to act quickly. Scammers typically try to push you into action before you have time to think. The IRS will give you the chance to ask questions or appeal what you owe. Also, their first contact with you will always be by mail, not phone or email. Payment must be made by wire transfer, prepaid debit card, or other non-traditional payment methods. These methods are largely untraceable and non-reversible. The IRS will never demand immediate payment, require a specific form of payment, or ask for credit card or debt card numbers over the phone.

In the U.S., the IRS may call you about outstanding debts after reaching out by mail. See BBB’s tips on IRS calls to tell if the IRS is really calling or if you are talking to a scammer.

Another tax scam to look out for is tax identity theft. This occurs when a scammer uses your government-issued identity number (Social Security number) to file a tax return in your name and collect your refund. It can also be someone using your information to get a job. Consumers don’t usually realize they have been victims of tax identity theft until they get a written notice from the IRS saying that more than one tax return was filed, or they were paid by an employer they don’t know.

Email phishing scams appear to be from the IRS and include a link to a bogus web site intended to mirror the official IRS web site. These emails contain the direction “you are to update your IRS e-file immediately.” The emails sometimes mention USA.gov and IRSgov (without a dot between “IRS” and “gov”). Don’t get scammed; these emails are not from the IRS.

The best way to avoid tax identity theft is to file your taxes as early as possible. File before a scammer has the chance to use your information to file a fake return.

In the U.S., jot down your Identity Protection PIN (IP PIN) from the IRS before you file your return. This is a six-digit number, which, in addition to your Social Security number, confirms your identity. It is important to note that you cannot opt-out once you get an IP PIN. So once you apply, you must provide the IP Pin each year when you file your federal tax returns. The IRS will provide your IP PIN online and then send you a new IP PIN each December by postal mail. Visit the IRS for more information about the program. Read BBB’s tips about the IRS PIN.

The IRS does not initiate contact with tax payers by email, text message or social media to request personal or financial information. This includes requests for PIN numbers, passwords or similar access information for credit cards, banks or other financial accounts.

Only deal with trustworthy tax preparation services. For many people, major life changes, business ownership, or simply a lack of knowledge about the ever-changing tax laws make finding a trustworthy tax preparer a good idea. That said, not all tax preparers have the same level of experience and training. See our tips for finding the right tax preparer for you.

Check out websites carefully and make sure you are accessing the real IRS website when filing your taxes electronically or inquiring for additional information.

If you are the victim of tax identity theft, contact the IRS at 1-800-908-4490. You should also file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) at ftc.gov/complaint or by calling 1-877-FTC-HELP. The FTC also offers a personalized identity theft recovery plan at identitytheft.gov.

If you get tax information delivered electronically from your employer or other entity, treat that information carefully. Download it onto a password-protected computer.

For more information, visit the tax tips and resources page.

To report a tax scam, go to BBB Scam Tracker. To learn how to protect yourself, go to “10 Steps to Avoid Scams.” For more than 100 years, Better Business Bureau has been helping people find businesses, brands and charities they can trust. In 2020, people turned to BBB more than 220 million times for BBB Business Profiles on more than 6.2 million businesses and Charity Reports on 11,000 charities, all available for free at BBB.org. There are local, independent BBBs across the United States, Canada and Mexico, including BBB serving Central Indiana, which was founded in 1916 and serves 46 counties.