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As filing season approaches, so do scammers

By TINA OREM NerdWallet

Last summer, Cindy Hockenberry decided she'd had it with threatening phone calls claiming she was behind on her taxes.

"One day -- I'm not kidding you -- I got called three times," she said.

Sometimes the calls were automated. But once, when she got a call from a live person, Hockenberry -- who happens to be the director of education and research at the National Association of Tax Professionals -- decided to play along.

The caller told her she owed over $5,000 in back taxes. "He was pretty convincing," Hockenberry recalls. ""He was saying the right things ... using the right tax lingo."

"Then I said to him, 'Do you realize that it's not lawful to impersonate an IRS employee?' ... He came back and said, 'Well, do you realize it's unlawful not to pay your taxes?' I said, 'Yes, as a matter of fact, I do -- which is why I know for a fact I have paid all my taxes.'"

There was a pause, she said. Then the caller cursed at her and hung up.

Hockenberry's story is just one example of how brazen tax scammers can be. In roughly the last three years, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, the body that oversees the IRS, has received more than 1.8 million reports of calls from people impersonating IRS employees, and almost 10,000 victims have lost a total of nearly $50 million. Tax-related email phishing and malware incidents shot up 400 percent in the 2016 tax season, according to the IRS.

Recent schemes include calls threatening arrest for an overdue, fictitious "federal student tax," emails with fake tax bills attached and IRS impersonators demanding payment via gift cards or prepaid cards.

Portland, Oregon-based CPA Joe Seifert says even tax preparers receive emails from scammers, asking for the usernames and passwords that let them access special IRS online tools.

Criminals pose as state tax officials to make a buck, too. For example, the Kansas Department of Revenue has received complaints about calls from employee impersonators, according to a department spokesperson. Scammers are also issuing letters and emails under the state's name.

As tax season approaches, people will likely see more scams, the Federal Trade Commission warns. There's little to prevent a criminal from picking up the phone or sending a bogus email, but there are four things you can do when these fishy communications arrive:

1. Know how the IRS initiates contact. "The IRS should never, ever be contacting you by email, ever. They should never ever be contacting you by phone. They should only be contacting you via letter," Seifert says.

2. Report creepy messages. You can forward shady tax-related emails to phishing@irs.gov and report suspicious phone calls to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration and the Federal Trade Commission. Collecting these reports recently helped the Department of Justice indict dozens of people in an alleged international call-center fraud scheme.

3. Verify issues with the IRS or your state tax authority. Question out-of-the-blue communications about alleged tax balances. If you owe back taxes , or think you might, call your tax professional, the IRS or the state tax department directly, Seifert says. A new online tool at IRS.gov also lets you look up unpaid taxes, penalties and interest.

4. Never pay over the phone. Even if you owe, the IRS never asks for credit, debit, prepaid card or bank information via phone, email, text or social media.

If someone does, "Just hang up on them," Seifert says.

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