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How to avoid this year's tax scams

Protect yourself from 2018's most popular tax schemes.

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CNET

It's tax season, which means it's also tax scam season.

Every year, nefarious individuals and groups defraud taxpayers and the US government out of millions of dollars, using techniques and technologies that range from the old-school to the cutting-edge. This year is no different, and the IRS has been feverishly issuing warnings about how to spot the red flags and strategies for staying out of scammers' crosshairs. 

Even if you've been careful with your sensitive data, the negligence of others may have put you in harm's way. Last year, Equifax, one of the three major credit bureaus, lost control of customer data that included Social Security numbers, home addresses, credit card numbers, drivers' license numbers and birth dates. The company estimates that the data of 143 million people -- most in the US -- were exposed. The 2017 tax season may help reveal the extent of the damage, as identity thieves use stolen Social Security numbers to file fraudulent tax returns and receive refunds. 

Here's a shortlist of some of the most popular scams making the rounds in 2018 -- and how to keep your identity and tax return safe and secure.

The IRS impersonator

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Mark Wilson

How it works: One of the most brazen schemes to come along this year has scammers claiming to represent the IRS calling taxpayers to demand an immediate tax payment. Calling from a phone number that appears to belong to the IRS, they will threaten, badger and intimidate you into making a rash decision. They will often ask for a transfer of funds by gift card or wire transfer. Thieves are increasingly extending this scheme to email and social media channels.

How to protect yourself: Know that the IRS will never phone you or show up at your house to demand an immediate payment -- especially via gift card or wire transfer. Though debt collectors have been known to get pushy, an IRS representative should never berate, abuse or threaten to bring in law or immigration agencies. If you ever doubt the legitimacy of the person who has contacted you, contact the IRS directly at 1-800-908-4490 for assistance.

Learn more: How the IRS collects tax debts

The surprise refund bait-and-switch

How it works: In the words of the IRS, this is a "new twist on an old scam." After criminals have secured your sensitive personal information, such as social security numbers and tax forms, they can easily file a fraudulent return on your behalf. Once the funds hit your bank account, the scammers, impersonating someone from the IRS or a collection agent, will contact you to demand the return of the ill-gotten money -- either by depositing into to an account or sending it to an address.

This is an example of one of the SMS phishing messages that purports to come from Bank of America.
Cloudmark

How to protect yourself: Be on the alert for an unexpected tax bill or refund, or messages from the IRS or your tax preparer about multiple returns filed using your social security number. If you get an erroneous refund -- don't go out and make a major purchase; the IRS will want its money back. If you suspect you're a victim, file a complaint with the FTC; request that the major credit bureaus put a "fraud alert" on your record; and contact the IRS at 1-800-908-4490.

Learn more: IRS urges taxpayers to watch out for erroneous refunds

The e-Trojan horse

Thieves have had years to refine their email trickery and have recently expanded into text messaging. Phishing scams have become much more sophisticated, with incredibly authentic-looking messages sent from credible-looking addresses that dupe victims into sharing sensitive information or installing malware. One particularly bold gambit involves scammers using the IRS name and logo to warn taxpayers about the very scam they're perpetrating, before soliciting sensitive personal information. Note that attackers are increasingly targeting tax professionals in addition to taxpayers.

Credit card phishing
Getty Images/iStockphoto

How to protect yourself: Be wary about any communications you receive over email, text message or social media purporting to be the IRS, a tax professional or any other financial organization. (If you do receive such a message, the IRS asks that you forward it to phishing@ irs.gov.) Again, the real IRS will never initiate contact to request personal or financial information.

Learn more: IRS warns tax preparers to watch out for new phishing scam

Note that the IRS regularly updates its website with information about new scams and old classics and how to respond if you've been targeted.

Taxes 2018: When they're due, how to file online and more.

How to deduct your home office: And not get audited.