As if filing your taxes wasn’t enough to worry about, tax season also brings out many scams.
According to Lewis Baum, president and co-owner of Baum Blaugrund, LLC in Solon; Bruce McAuliffe, partner at RSM US, LLP in Cleveland; and Matt Szydlowski, tax manager at Zinner & Co. in Beachwood, tax scams tend to prey on an individual’s knee-jerk reaction, pressuring them into making a split decision that will ultimately be harmful.
“The majority of them are what we call scare tactics, where you get a phone call from someone claiming they are from the IRS, withholding income or putting a lien on your house,” Szydlowski explained. “It’s always in that same vein, and a lot of it comes through emails and phone calls, which are always fake. The IRS will never use email, text, social media or call you. They will only use certified letter mailing. Anytime it is a digital outreach, you can almost guarantee it is fake.”
More specifically, Baum said he’s seen a lot of these scams revolve more around the end goal of stealing the taxpayer’s identity.
“Identity theft has been the fastest-growing consumer crime because your information is valuable,” he said. “It can be sold and used to take out debt in your name, so it gives money to the scammer and can be used on the black market. So, this issue tends to go hand-in-hand with identity theft. Many tax scams are pulling some personal information about you and using it to scam you.”
An example of this, Baum said, would be someone preparing your tax return before you have the chance to do it yourself. So, they have your social security number, address, tax information and other personal details, which they can use to understand your income and overstate it to get a larger refund.
“If it goes into your account, you’d get a phone call from the person posing to be part of the IRS, saying you erroneously were sent money and you’d be charged a fine,” he said. “It’s all based on fear.”
Another common scam, McAuliffe said, is threatening to revoke someone’s green card unless payment to the scammer is made, posing as someone from the IRS.
“They prey on people with last names that sound ethnic and scare them into making payments on prepaid cards,” he explained. “The IRS will never demand immediate payment. Sometimes collections agents can show up unannounced, but the taxpayer should already be aware they’re in collections before that happens.”
Besides knowing that the IRS would only ever contact a taxpayer with certified mail, there are a few other red flags individuals should be on the lookout for.
“Their ideal target is typically going to be someone elderly or unsure of themselves, and will slip by providing some information,” Baum said. “So, a major red flag would be a call, text or even an email. Those are the things people should ignore. Also, I would tell individuals to go to a reputable tax preparer. Get someone that comes by recommendation, that you feel comfortable with. You want to make sure they’re legitimate.”
Szydlowski added, “The emails are what get people. It looks legitimate because it has the IRS logo and it could be very professionally written. They link and share the same information, and that is the biggest way people fall for it.”
If someone does fall victim to a scam, there aren’t many options to fully reverse the damage, besides reporting it to the IRS and working to protect their identity. But, individuals can glean knowledge should they get another message in the future.
“The biggest thing is educating yourself in terms of how the IRS would contact you, so you don’t fall victim in the first place,” Szydlowski noted. “That alone is great knowledge. If you know the IRS won’t contact you in that way, it won’t be a problem.”
McAuliffe said, “If it sounds too good to be true or if it is too threatening, call your accountant or attorney to double-check. These crooks are coming up with new ways to scam people every day, and hopefully, we are not far behind.”