Two headlines top the news near the start of this income tax season.
Thieves who steal Social Security numbers and other personal data do so in order to file phony tax returns and claim rebates they’re not owed.
And crooks posing as Internal Revenue Service officials are calling people and, in many cases, bullying them into sending money they don’t owe.
They use common names and all kinds of tricks. They may say they’re calling from the IRS criminal division. They might have technology that will spoof a caller ID, making it appear they’re calling from a real IRS office. They threaten those they consider easier targets — such as older people and recent immigrants — with fines, jail terms, job loss, even deportation.
The crooks do their homework before calling. They might know a person’s Social Security number — or at least the last four digits — and other personal details that lend credence to their pitch. Demanding immediate payment is a tipoff it’s a scam — the real IRS first would notify you by letter of any official action — and the agency never would demand payment by a debit card or wire transfer.
Losing a one-time payment is bad enough. Thousands of taxpayers have filed their income taxes only to find a crook has stolen their identities, filed fraudulently and collected their refunds illegally.
The IRS says after such discoveries, it takes an average of four months to get a refund to its rightful recipient. That person also needs to go through the hassle associated with identity theft. Perhaps ironically, prisoners’ Social Security numbers often are tempting targets, because inmates are less apt to be on top of their tax or banking activities.
The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, or TIGTA, says it has received reports of 290,000 scam calls since October 2013, and nearly 3,000 victims have lost a total of $14 million. The IRS has been working to curb these crimes, saying it spotted 19 million suspicious returns since 2011 and prevented more than $63 billion in fraudulent returns. Read about ways to spot impersonators and report scams at Treasury.gov/tigta.
Consumers can and should take all the usual steps to prevent fraud: use firewalls and antivirus software, use strong passwords and change them often on all online accounts and reveal your Social Security number only when it’s absolutely necessary.
If you become a victim, the IRS says it wants to help. Read about the agency’s prevention and detection efforts at IRS.gov/Individuals/Identity-Protection.
The IRS is also warning consumers about unscrupulous preparers who push filers to make inflated claims. Often, these preparers will demand an up-front fee; they may also refuse to give the taxpayer a copy of the return. Both are things that legitimate tax preparation pros don’t do.
You may qualify for free help preparing your income tax filings. Seniors can check with AARP or the local agency on aging. The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, or VITA, program gives free tax help to people who make $53,000 or less, have disabilities, are older or who speak little English and need help preparing their returns.
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 necontact.wordpress.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.