Archive for the ‘IRS’ Category

How to avoid getting hit with a big fee to cash tax refund checks

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Feb. 06, 2017, at 8:07 a.m.
The Internal Revenue Service or IRS recommends that anyone earning $54,000 or less find out more about the Earned Income Tax Credit.

Last year 27 million Americans qualified, and the EITC average was more than $2,455. This year, officials say even more taxpayers will qualify.

As we’ve written earlier, IRS officials will be scrutinizing reviews to curb fraud; that will slow the pace of returns for those claiming EITC and the Additional Child Tax Credit. Once those refunds do arrive, some consumers will face hard choices about cashing those refund checks.

Those are consumers who do not regularly use a bank or credit union. Often referred to as “the unbanked,” these consumers use a variety of alternative methods to pay monthly bills and buy goods in other than brick-and-mortar stores.

In doing so, they rack up on average more than $2,400 per year in interest charges. Financial advisers say much of that interest burden could be reduced or eliminated.

Many of those advisers suggest turning first to local banks and credit unions. Responding to competition from multi-state banks, Maine-based financial institutions have been looking for ways to attract customers who until recently may have avoided traditional banks or credit unions.

“The playing field has expanded as far as low or no-cost banking services go,” David Leach, adjunct professor of banking at the University of Maine at Augusta, said. “I think the challenge for policy makers and politicians is to get the word out, through social service agencies and through governmental regulatory agencies, that there are low- and no-cost banking services.”

Lloyd Lafountain III is superintendent of banking for the state of Maine. He said Maine-based financial institutions combine the latest technologies with local knowledge.

“Many offer low-cost accounts, and consumers can avoid overdraft fees by not using paper checks and not opting into overdraft protection programs,” he said.

Check-cashing outlets, pawnshops and payday loans are costly substitutes for a bank or credit union. Federal and state officials have launched efforts over the years to attract consumers to the world of traditional banking. Still, millions of Americans find themselves using short-term, high-cost solutions to get past the next round of bills.

A lot of those quick-fix solutions are found on the internet, but many are less than economical. Few of them offer the kinds of customer service that face-to-face relationships can provide.

Tips on opening a low-cost account can be found online at maine.gov/pfr/financialinstitutions/consumer/saveandprotectyourmoney.pdf.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer, ME 04412, visit https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

You can’t avoid death and taxes, but you can dodge identity theft

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Jan. 30, 2017, at 8:25 a.m.

Last year, the Internal Revenue Service, the states and tax professionals teamed up to reduce incidents of taxpayer identity theft.


The crime occurs when a criminal steals your Social Security number and files a return in your name; the thief claims a refund to which he’s not entitled. When you file your legitimate tax return, the IRS flags it because it has already received a return in your name.

It’s believed that more diligent enforcement helped the IRS to prevent more than $180 million from going to fraudulent claimants. Now, officials are doubling down on their efforts to fight taxpayer ID theft.

The Federal Trade Commission has proclaimed the week of Jan. 30-Feb. 3 as Tax Identity Theft Week. The agency is offering a series of events to educate consumers and business people on ways they can minimize the risk of thieves stealing refunds.

At 3 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 31, the FTC and Identity Theft Resource Center will hold a Twitter chat dealing with tax identity theft, ways to protect yourself and what to do if you are a victim.

A similar session is planned for 11 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 1, about tax ID theft for service people, veterans and their families. At 4 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 1, FTC and the IRS will hold a tax ID theft chat for small business people. Find a link to these and other events at www.ftc.gov and look under “Latest News.”

Income tax season is big business for high-tech criminals, so be on guard for all sorts of scams. You might get a call from someone posing as an IRS official, seeking to “verify” tax return information by phone.

Other scammers may mention news reports of tax fraud and try to trick victims into “verifying the last four digits of their Social Security number.”

Others might pretend to be from the tax preparation industry … in short, they’ll use any tactic they think might work to fool consumers.

The crooks also take aim at business people. They might call human resources professionals and ask for information found on W-2 forms; a variation of that scam has an email message bearing the name of a corporate officer seeking personal information about an employee. Some scammers have posed as providers of software to trick tax preparers.

The variations are virtually endless. The IRS lists many of the most often used tricks at its website, www.irs.gov/uac/tax-scams-consumer-alerts.

Many tax pros suggest filing early, thereby giving the crooks less time to file fraudulently ahead of you. Once you have filed, you can check the status of your refund at www.irs.gov/Refunds.

You also can call the IRS Identity Theft toll-free at 800-908-4490 or visit www.irs.gov/identitytheft.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer, ME 04412, visit https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

If robots call to say you owe back taxes, don’t believe them

Posted Jan. 16, 2017, at 6:19 a.m.

Which of the following is a scam?

— You get a phone call saying you owe money to the Internal Revenue Service and should pay by way of an iTunes card.

— A caller says she is an IRS official demanding immediate payment of overdue taxes, and the number on your caller ID appears to be from the local IRS office.

— A caller identifies himself as a law enforcement officer and says you face immediate arrest if you don’t wire money for overdue taxes.

— An email bearing an official-looking IRS logo asks you to “update your IRS e-file immediately.” The email mentions IRSgov — without a dot separating “IRS” and “gov.”

If you answered that all of the above are scams, you are correct.

The investigative arm of the IRS says that 1.8 million people have reported receiving impostor calls. More than 9,600 victims have been scammed out of more than $50 million.

Phishing and malware incidents rose roughly 400 percent during the 2016 tax filing season. Despite officials’ best efforts to curb the increase, it’s expected that the numbers of tax-related scam attempts will continue to grow.

Increasingly popular with scammers is the robo-call. The crooks leave urgent call-back requests, demanding payment of “back taxes” with gift cards. IRS officials say such demands are clear signs of a scam.

Other callers may ask for payment of a nonexistent “federal student tax.” People they call are told to wire money — another sure sign of a scam — with threats of legal action unless payment comes at once.

Another scheme involves a call saying the IRS “just needs a few details” to speed up the processing of your refund. The scammer tries to get personal information such as Social Security numbers, bank routing numbers or other sensitive data such as credit card numbers.

Human resources and payroll professionals have been targeted as well, through requests for information about employees. A scammer posing as the company’s CEO requests personal and financial information, including Social Security numbers.

In an effort to catch scammers and identity thieves, the IRS is delaying refunds this year for anyone claiming the earned income tax credit (EITC) or the additional child tax credit (ACTC). That move is expected to give the IRS added time to weed out more sophisticated fraudulent returns. It may also hurt lower income taxpayers who file early and likely will be waiting at least until late February for refunds. Offers to “help speed up your refund” may be more scams.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chairs the Senate’s Special Committee on Aging, which has published a guidebook on avoiding scams. Read it online at aging.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/217925%20Fraud%20Book%20Final.pdf. You also can call the committee’s fraud hotline (1-855-303-9470) for information or to report fraud attempts.

The IRS offers a summary of our legal protections in the Taxpayer Bill of Rights at irs.gov/taxpayer-bill-of-rights.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer, ME 04412, visit https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

Consumer complaints helped bust bogus call center with 700 employees

Posted Oct. 31, 2016, at 6:54 a.m.
FMI check press release, October 27th

FMI check press release, October 27th

You are likely one of the thousands of Maine consumers who have received phone calls from someone wanting a “delinquent tax payment.” We’ve written over the years about crooks posing as Internal Revenue Service agents or other officials who try to coerce people into paying money they don’t owe.

These days, you might hang up quickly and dismiss the attempted ripoff without another thought. However, you might help slow the scammers by taking the time to report the attempt.

Consider the action by police in Mumbai, India, a few weeks ago. Raids on nine call centers resulted in 70 arrests. Investigators allege that employees were trained to speak with American accents as they pressured people to pay phony debts by wiring money that couldn’t be recovered. Each call center raked in an estimated $150,000 per day, usually from retirees and other older Americans.

The Indian Express reports that authorities are still questioning some of the 700 employees of the fake call centers. They’re also hunting for the alleged mastermind of the scheme, who apparently fled a lavish lifestyle in India for a new home in Dubai.

Back in the U.S., people who keep an eye on such things think the raids were made possible by reports from people the scammers attempted to target. Since March 2015, the Better Business Bureau has maintained a “scam tracker” website that consumers can use to file complaints about the IRS scam and other ripoff attempts. BBB officials say that following the raids in India complaints to that website dropped by 95 percent.

The sharp dip in complaints “validates our belief in the importance of using reports from the public to better understand the scam landscape,” program manager Emma Fletcher told the Washington Post. The Treasury Department welcomes information about these impersonation scams. File a report online at treasury.gov/tigta/contact_report_scam.shtml.

The Internet Crime Complaint Center also accepts reports at IC3.gov.

Maine Attorney General Janet Mills warned consumers back in August about the IRS impostor scam maine.gov/ag/news/article.shtml?id=703353.

At the time, Mills said, “The IRS scam and others like it are consistently the top complaint we receive.” She urged consumers not to engage callers and not to divulge personal information.

The Internal Revenue Service will not call suddenly to ask for a payment, won’t demand a specific kind of payment (hoaxers specify paying by wire or gift card) and the IRS won’t threaten legal action if you don’t pay immediately.

If you do owe money, you’ll get a letter first, and there’s usually a period of time in which you can settle your debt.

The IRS has a rundown of recent hoaxes and steps consumers can take to avoid being scammed at irs.gov/uac/tax-scams-consumer-alerts.

Scammers sometimes send emails to back up their phone call threats. They may have personal information about consumers, including the last four digits of their Social Security numbers. They may also spoof the number a caller ID shows to mimic a real IRS office. Don’t be fooled. If you have any doubts, look up the number of your nearest IRS office yourself, call that number and inquire.

A lot of scams originate overseas; in fact, posing as a government official ranked second on a list compiled by the International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network, a joint effort by 35 organizations worldwide. Visit its site at econsumer.gov/#crnt.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer , ME04412, visit https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

‘Student tax’ doesn’t exist, so hang up on demands to pay it

CONSUMER FORUM

By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT
Posted May 30, 2016, at 11:08 a.m.

Those nasty scam artists claiming to be Internal Revenue Service agents are at it again.

This time, they’re calling students — weary from finals and staggering under student loan debt — and telling them they’re in arrears on their “federal student taxes.”

A lot of students have recognized these calls as the hoaxes they are and hung up. Many then get another call with a “spoofed” caller ID, making it appear the caller is with a branch of law enforcement or other agency. The demand is the same: Wire money immediately or face arrest.

The warning signs are all there: cold calls from supposed authority figures, demands for immediate payment backed by phony threats of jail or sometimes physical harm.

The Federal Trade Commission warned consumers last week that there is no student tax and that attempts to collect are always scams.

“No one from the IRS will ever ask you to wire money, or pay by sending iTunes gift cards or reloadable prepaid cards,” the FTC news release read.

The agency’s advice is to hang up immediately, don’t believe fake follow-up calls and report the call to the FTC.

“And tell your friends at school. They might get the next call!” the release concluded.

It might seem like a waste of time to file a single report, considering the thousands of scams that occur. However, Sen. Susan Collins said last week that a complaint filed with her Special Committee on Aging had led to the arrest of five people in Florida. The five allegedly impersonated IRS agents and scammed victims of nearly $2 million.

The bottom-line message is that criminals don’t care about the age of their intended victims. They care only about stealing money.

All student loans in the U.S. total roughly $1.2 billion, so it’s no surprise that criminals target debtors. Because borrowers are always required to repay student loans, many seek ways to lessen the financial burden of their loans. Unfortunately, they often look for “quick fixes” that can turn into long-term headaches.

Offers to refinance, lower rates or abolish debt altogether are often bogus. Many services for which greedy sellers charge fees can be obtained for free, at least in the case of federal loans.

Get information on federal student loan programs at studentaid.ed.gov/sa/ or call toll-free 1-800-4FED-AID (1-800-433-3243). That website also contains toll-free phone numbers so that federal loan recipients can call their loan servicers directly.

For tips on avoiding scams involving federal student loans, visit studentaid.ed.gov/sa/types/scams.

The Finance Authority of Maine also has information about student loans at famemaine.com/education or by calling 1-800-228-3734.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer, ME 04412, visit https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

Tax season brings out worst phone scammers

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted March 21, 2016, at 9:35 a.m.

“Hi, I’m calling from the Internal Revenue Service to verify some information on your income tax filing. Just to be sure I have it right, could you tell me…”

The caller may give you a phony name and badge number and may have spoofed the phone number to make it appear you really were getting a call from an IRS office. But it was just one of the nearly 900,000 phone scam attempts reported to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration since October 2013. The agency says it knows of more than 5,000 victims who have been tricked out of more than $26.5 million in such scams.

The tricksters are successful because they play on our fears. We might fear being sent to prison, being deported or having our credit score lowered. Scammers have no power or legal authority to do any of those things, but the threats still concern us.

They concern seniors and students, especially. Seniors are frequent targets because they’re generally home, they answer the phone and they tend to be a bit more trusting than younger people.

Crooks target students with phony IRS threats and with offers to help “fix” their student loan situations. Don’t pay an upfront fee for something you can probably do for free.

Once the offer or threat is made, the punch line amounts to “pay up or else.” Do so by wire transfer or prepaid debit card — untraceable and not recoverable. Several scammers might call to make you think their story is real. Once you send the money away, it’s gone, straight into the pockets of the crooks.

The IRS estimates that phishing schemes have gone up 400 percent just this year. The agency — indeed, all legitimate businesses and government entities — do not do business by calling first. If they call at all, a real business or agency will leave a message, giving you a chance to verify the correct phone number to call.

That last point is important, of course, because of scammers’ ability to spoof phone numbers, fooling caller ID systems that may display a genuine business or government number. The crooks are really calling from disposable cellphones, but only they know that’s the case.

Impostors use our emotions in other ways, too. Concern for family or friends kicks in when we get a call that someone has been in an accident or was jailed while in a foreign country. A call to someone close to the supposed victim can determine the truth. Wiring money based on a single phone call usually ends up benefitting only a scam artist.

One last major group of impostors pretends to be from “Microsoft technical services” and says your computer needs fixing. They’re not, and it doesn’t.

They’re looking to have you press the combination of keys that turns control of your computer over to them, so they can download viruses or other malware and hold your computer for ransom. When they call, just hang up.

Today’s scammers might also use old-fashioned trickery. Some impersonate municipal workers, “checking water lines” or using other ruses to get inside your home. If you did not call for the service being offered, don’t open the door. If the scammer refuses to leave or pressures you, call 911.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer, ME 04412, visit https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

Protect yourself against scams before filing taxes

CONSUMER FORUM

 

Posted Jan. 25, 2016, at 11:18 a.m.
Federal officials have termed them the biggest scams ever. Together, they cost consumers billions of dollars every year. And they use people’s fear of the Internal Revenue Service as a weapon.

The first starts with an unexpected phone call. You’re told that you owe taxes and must pay immediately or you’ll be jailed. What do you do?

An IRS official says, just hang up … it’s a scam.

Hundreds of thousands of consumers have received multiple calls from different people, all posing as either IRS officials or law enforcement agents. All the callers claim that legal action is certain, unless they receive money via wire right away. A demand for immediate payment is the second tipoff that it’s a hoax.

The first was the threat of imprisonment.

The IRS does not typically call a taxpayer; the agency begins by sending a letter. It also does not seek payment by way of prepaid cards, and it does not have agents standing by with arrest warrants in case the taxpayer hesitates.

The criminals who use these techniques can be abusive, even threatening to hurt their victims. These hoax calls may originate halfway around the world — although a spoofed phone number may make them appear nearby — and any threatened action rarely happens.

The second major hoax involves the filing of a phony tax return. If a thief steals your name, birthdate and Social Security number, he or she can file a bogus return in your name. If the IRS doesn’t catch it, the agency might send a refund to the crook; it may not be until you file your legitimate return that the fraud is discovered.

The IRS has trained thousands of employees to help possible victims. It has also put in place a number of preventive measures, most of which it won’t discuss in order not to assist the scammers. In a public message last week, the IRS said it has teamed up with the states and tax preparers to “stop fraudulent returns at the door.”

One new piece of information from tax software providers will be the amount of time it took to prepare a return. That could be a tipoff when computer-generated returns are fraudulent and have been filed by the hundreds or thousands.

You can read about the new measures at IRS.gov/uac/IRS,-States-and-Tax-Industry-Deploy-New-Safeguards-for-2016.

Tax season brings with it a rash of scam artists trying new ideas. Crooks might point to last year’s hack of IRS computers, which compromised some information of about 200,000 taxpayers. They might pose as “IRS counselors” or “credit advisers” while their real goal is to steal more personal data.

IRS officials suggest that tax preparers do a “deep scan” of all their computer drives and devices to find malware and viruses that may hide in places that a “quick scan” can’t find. Firewalls and antivirus software also should be up to date; if you use a tax preparer, don’t be shy about asking if security systems are robust.

If you store your tax filings on your computer, make sure there’s a backup in case your hard drive crashes. If you store paper copies, keep them under lock and key (ideally in a fireproof container). Find more security and identity protection tips at IRS.gov.

If you get a phone call you suspect is a hoax attempt, call 800-366-4484 to find out if the caller is a real IRS employee with a legitimate reason to reach you. If a piece of mail seems suspicious, call 800-829-1040 to see if it’s legitimate.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer, ME 04412, visit https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

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