If it feels like we have far too many scams to worry about and protect ourselves from, you're correct. From robocalls about free vacations to spam text messages that lead to unsafe websites, nefarious individuals are constantly trying to trick and manipulate people out of their hard-earned money.
Now with tax season upon us, individuals and groups will once again attempt to 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. For example, in 2017, 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 -- and how to keep both your identity and tax return safe and secure.
The IRS impersonation phone call
How it works: One of the most brazen schemes used every year is scammers calling and claiming to represent the IRS to taxpayers and demand an immediate tax payment. Calling from a phone number that appears to belong to the IRS on your caller ID, they will threaten, badger and intimidate you into making a rash decision. Usually 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 someone claiming to work for the IRS calls you, the IRS says you should write down the number you received the call from, the name of the caller and then hang up. You can then call the IRS directly at 1-800-829-1040 or visit irs.gov/balancedue to view your account.
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 an account or sending it to an address.
How to protect yourself: Be on the alert for an unexpected tax bill, 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.
Cancel or suspend your Social Security number
How it works: Criminals are making calls and threatening to suspend or cancel your Social Security number (SSN) until your overdue are paid. The scam may seem legit because the caller has some of your personal information, including the last four digits of your SSN. But as the IRS puts it: "Make no mistake… it's a scam."
How to protect yourself: If someone calls and threatens to cancel or suspend your social security number, hang up immediately. If they call back, don't answer. Write down the number and then report the call on this site, and send an email with the subject of "IRS Phone Scam" to firstname.lastname@example.org and include the phone number, as well as any other details that are relevant, in the body of the email.
If you do owe taxes, you can call the IRS at 1-800-829-1040 to discuss your payment options. However, your Social Security number will not be canceled or suspended.
Fake texts, emails, or social media messages
How it works: Thieves have had years to refine their email trickery and have recently expanded into text messages and social media messages. 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.
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. Again, the real IRS will never initiate contact to request personal or financial information.
If you do receive such a message, the IRS asks that you forward it to email@example.com. Do not reply to the original message.
Scammers are constantly trying new things
The IRS has a dedicated Tax Scams webpage where the agency publishes warnings and updates about the current crop of scams that are being used. Additional scams the IRS has issued warnings for include "ghost tax preparers" who charge someone to do their taxes, often based on a large refund amount, and then fail to mail in the tax return -- leaving the customer with an unfiled tax return and no refund.
The biggest takeaway here is this: If the IRS needs something from you, you'll receive a letter in the mail. You won't get an email, phone call or text message. Even still, letters can be faked, so it's best to use only official IRS websites and phone numbers.
In addition to preventing your tax information from being compromised, it's also a good idea to use a password manager, two-factor authentication wherever possible, and learn how to identify robocalls.
Originally published earlier this month. Updated with new information.