This is the first week of tax season, so brace yourself for email scams.
Americans are getting ready to file their taxes and fraudsters are getting ready to target taxpayers with new scams, according to the Internal Revenue Service. The agency is warning taxpayers to be extra vigilant this year. After years of declines, there was a 60% jump in 2018 in so-called phishing scams, in which perpetrators impersonate a tax preparer or other legitimate person over email. From January to October 2018, more than 2,000 tax-related scam incidents were reported to the IRS.
If the IRS is going to contact you, they'll initiate contact with a paper letter in the mail, an IRS spokesperson confirmed to MarketWatch. The IRS will only call you in rare circumstances. "Tax season is prime phishing season for cybercriminals," said Atif Mushtaq, chief executive officer of Pleasanton, Calif.-based security provider SlashNext. "Because email security tools have become so sophisticated, hackers are using them to look for new ways to target users."
Scam emails targeting consumers are not only from people pretending to be the IRS, but also from scammers impersonating TurboTax (INTU) and other tax preparation companies. "There has been a twist on the tax scam over the years," said Darrell Laffoon, chief technology officer of security firms EZShield + IdentityForce. "Instead of targeting individuals, these scammers are targeting tax preparers themselves. Be cautious about whom you hire to do your taxes."
The IRS has also warned about a recent scam where fraudsters sent emails with the subject line "tax transcripts." Here are some tips to prevent tax-related scams in 2019:
Check the true sender
If you receive a suspicious email, check for more specific details about the sender of a message, including the sender's email address, by clicking on the arrow next to the sender on most email clients. Scammers can obscure their actual email addresses through certain email clients. On Gmail clicking this box will give details on who sent the email, their actual email address, and whether it is encrypted or secured. If the email is not secure, it is more likely to be a scam.
Often, emails from scammers use an address that's just slightly different than a valid one, said Vinay Pidathala, director of security research at Menlo Security, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based security firm. "Always check whether the domain next to the sender's address really maps to the sending company," he said. "Attackers often use typo squatting like TurboTax spelled like ‘turb0tax' or ‘tarbotax' to send fraudulent messages."
File early to avoid scammers
File taxes today to prevent scams, and keep an eye out for your return. Many of these scams rely on you not having filed your tax return yet, Laffoon said, so if you get an email asking to file your taxes after you've done so, you can be sure it's a hoax. "It is a race to between you and a criminal," he said. "And if they win, they end up with your money." The deadline to file taxes is April 15, 2019, but Americans can file as early as Jan. 28. Still, many Americans wait until the last minute to do so.
Report any suspicious emails
Suspicious emails can be forwarded directly to firstname.lastname@example.org, a spokesman from the IRS told MarketWatch. The spokesman noted to forward the entire email to include valuable information. Most tax-preparation services like TurboTax have their own reporting systems. TurboTax recommends users forward potential spam emails to its security group at email@example.com. You can call the FTC identity-theft hot line at 1-877-438-4338 to report suspicious activity. Don't click on tax emails
Bottom line: Refrain from clicking on emails that purport to contain sensitive information. If you see an email advertising news from TurboTax or another tax program, or from the IRS, go directly to the website to check your account. Remember, these entities will generally not ask for sensitive information like a Social Security number via email. "Go with that gut feeling," Laffoon said. "Being suspicious is always your first line of defense."
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