tax time

Tax season is here, which means it’s also an elevated fraud season. With the deadline coming up and people rushing to get their taxes submitted on time, it is critical to remain vigilant, especially if you are planning to file your taxes online. Here’s how to avoid getting scammed during tax time.

Tax scams work a few ways

Some criminals impersonate the Internal Revenue Service, threatening people into wiring money or sharing financial information; others collect leaked Social Security numbers and other personal information from large data breaches, and use it to file people’s tax returns early and claim the rebate; and some use leaked passwords from old breaches to break into digital tax filing systems that users have protected with a reused password. Another trend is hacking tax preparers who store many people’s financial information in one place.

The problem is that the software often used and relied on isn’t always helping keep you safe. An audit released by internet security non-profit the Online Trust Alliance in 2016 found that 46 percent, or six out of 13, tax software websites in an IRS program failed cybersecurity protocols. Some of the websites had issues with lack of email authentication, according to the OTA, which lets cyber criminals send out phishing emails purporting to be from a company. Other sites had vulnerabilities that could lead to personal information being stolen.

Unfortunately, many consumers and businesses rely on this technology, and beyond that, not all tax fraud is preventable. For example, your tax preparer — or another organization that has your personal information — could be breached. Still, many cons can be avoided, and staying informed can significantly improve your defense.

So, how can you protect yourself this tax season?

Beware of phishing emails: Phishing can take many forms, but typically it’s done through phony emails. Scam artists adopt false identities as a way to extract personal information from their targets or to plant destructive software into a person’s computer.

They often pretend to be IRS agents, informing their targets of problems with their returns or refunds and telling them that the only solution is to send their Social Security numbers or bank account information. Or the email will include a link that, when opened, installs spyware or malware onto the victim’s computer that can then mine all their files and personal data.

One of the surest signs of a scam is when tax preparers make unrealistic promises, such as guaranteeing huge payouts, regardless of an individual’s financial situation.

Don’t give in to phony phone calls

A surprise call from someone claiming to be with the IRS can scare anyone. Scammers will try to play into your initial fear by saying that you owe back-taxes and that failure to pay might result in your arrest or deportation. The number on your caller ID will likely seem legitimate, and the caller might provide a fake ID number or employ other ruses to make the call sound like it’s really coming from an IRS office. For example, they might already have some of your personal information to lure you into believing them.

It’s important to know that the IRS will never call you to demand immediate payment, ask for your credit or debit card number over the phone or threaten to have you arrested for not paying, according to the IRS website. If you owe the IRS money, the agency will mail you a bill. If you receive a call from someone claiming to be with the IRS, the IRS website instructs you to hang up immediately and not give the caller any information.

Keep an eye open for e-filing scams

Another type of scam similar to phishing is the “Update your IRS e-file” trick. This is also an email fraudulently claiming to be from the IRS and directing taxpayers to make changes to their electronic filing preferences. The IRS warns to watch for the following specific red flags in these emails:

  • ”IRSgov” without a dot between “IRS” and “gov”
  • USA.gov, which is not part of the IRS

Be aware of phishing scams, scam phone calls, and the other tax scams we’ve described here and you can avoid the pain a tax scam can bring.