The Times West Virginian

Business

February 16, 2014

IRS warns that anybody can be target of scam

FAIRMONT — With the income tax filing season underway, consumers should be aware of scams that can target anyone.

Internal Revenue Service spokesperson Mark Hanson said one scam with a new angle has been circulating. What makes this scheme unique is the amount of information that the scammers already have about taxpayers, such as their name, their phone number and either their entire Social Security number or the last four digits.

Also, the criminals find a way to make the phone calls appear on caller ID as if they’re coming from one of the IRS’ toll-free numbers. While these calls may seem very real, they are not actually originating from an IRS facility, Hanson said.

He said the individual on the other end of the phone line tells the taxpayer that he or she owes taxes and must provide a credit card, debit card or bank account number.

Hanson stressed that the IRS doesn’t operate in this way when collecting money from taxpayers. If correspondence with a taxpayer about a tax return is needed, the IRS will first send a notice in the mail. If the IRS ends up having to make a phone call, it will never ask the individual to provide sensitive information over the phone.

If consumers aren’t falling for the scammer’s trap, the caller will often become hostile and make threats, he said. The crook may threaten to revoke the person’s driver’s license or business license or hurt their immigration status.

“This could target anybody,” Hanson said. “They’re trying to hurt people. They want your sensitive personal information so they can steal.”

Email scams during tax time have been a problem for years, he said. Hanson explained that the IRS does not send out unsolicited email messages asking for taxpayer information. Again, this is not the way that the IRS does business, and the agency will send a letter in the mail if contact is needed.

Some email schemes include links to bogus tax preparation websites, which put personal information in the hands of criminals and lead to identity theft. Hanson urged consumers to never provide their personal information and don’t click on the links or open the attachments in these emails.

“The best thing that you can do is delete the message,” he said. “Don’t fall into one of these traps. It’s not the IRS contacting you.”

Consumers are welcome to forward these emails to phishing@irs.gov, which is a specific email address the IRS uses to try to detect patterns and shut down these scams. Additional information is also available on the IRS’s website, irs.gov.

Taxpayers who are seeking the services of a paid tax professional should make sure they pick someone they trust and who is willing to answer questions and provide assistance throughout the process. This is a very important financial transaction, and the IRS will first question the taxpayer if there are any issues with the return, Hanson said.

“Never sign a blank tax return and let somebody else fill it out for you,” he urged. “Never go to a tax professional that charges you a fee based on the amount of refund you are due.”

Hanson explained that a taxpayer’s refund should be about the same no matter who prepares it, as long as he or she is taking advantage of all the credits and deductions available.

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey added that taxpayers need to do their homework in order to select a good tax preparer.

When people are thinking of filing a tax return with the assistance of a professional, they should talk to friends and family who know about the reputations of different firms, he said.

Also, taxpayers should make sure a tax preparation company is a registered business in the state of West Virginia and do research on the internet to make sure it hasn’t been the subject of any particular problems.

Morrisey reiterated that the IRS will contact taxpayers through the regular mail, and people should respond to those letters as soon as possible. Persons should also keep their personal information in a secure location.

He said individuals shouldn’t simply throw away copies of their tax returns and calculations, but should shred those documents. This is important because identity thieves may go through trash to try to obtain this information.

Morrisey urged consumers to avoid doing their taxes in public Wi-Fi areas, because of the risk of identity theft.

“Around tax time, you’re always going to get a unique number of tax-related scams, and so we always want to get out and educate people,” he said. “Just take some proper precautions to make sure you’re protecting your confidential information.”

The Consumer Protection Division of the Attorney General’s Office spends a lot of time trying to inform people around the state about the latest scams related to taxes, health insurance or other topics. Education is the best way to prevent people from becoming victims, Morrisey said.

“A lot of this is exercising good common sense, but also being mindful of the many ways scammers are trying to take away your money,” he said.

In addition, Hanson provided some tips for the filing season.

People who make under $58,000 a year can file their federal tax returns for free by going to freefile.irs.gov. Also, those who earn $52,000 or less a year can take advantage of the VITA Program, in which volunteers provide free face-to-face assistance on tax preparation. Other free tools exist to help individuals in preparing their taxes as well.

He said more and more people — over 80 percent — are now filing their taxes electronically. People who are currently filing by paper may want to consider switching to e-file, which allows them to receive their refund faster.

If a taxpayer files electronically and chooses direct deposit, the refund will appear in his or her bank account in 10 to 21 days. But if a person mails a paper return to the IRS and requests that the refund be sent as a physical check, the time frame is four to six weeks, Hanson said.

Also, returns that are filed electronically are more accurate, as errors can be detected very quickly, he said.

Email Jessica Borders at jborders@timeswv.com or follow her on Twitter @JBordersTWV.

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