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How to protect yourself this tax season – NBC Chicago

Tax season can come with several headaches, from collecting paperwork to finding the time to sit down and file. But one pain you want to avoid is falling for a tax scam.

All year long, scammers look for ways to trick people into giving them money or personal information. There are several common types of scams during tax season, so people should be on the lookout for red flags, said Amy Nofziger, director of victim support for the AARP Fraud Watch Network.

One of the most common types of scams involves identity theft. Taxpayers usually know their identity has been stolen when they try to file their taxes and the IRS says they have already done so. This usually means that someone else has filed a claim in their name to receive a refund.

In 2023, the IRS received 294,138 identity theft complaints. The IRS says taxpayers who are victims of tax-related identity theft wait an average of 19 months for the IRS to process their returns and send their refunds.

Here are some expert recommendations to protect yourself from scams during tax time:

Know the tactics of fraudsters

Three tactics commonly used by fraudsters are based on fear, urgency and money, said security expert Petros Efstathopoulos. Here’s how they work:

FEAR

When a scammer contacts you by phone or email, they use language that makes it seem like there is a problem you need to resolve. For example, a scammer emails you to tell you that your tax return has an error and that if you don’t correct it, you will be in trouble.

EMERGENCY

Because scammers are good at creating a sense of urgency, people tend to rush, which leaves them vulnerable. Scammers often tell people they need to act immediately, which can lead them to share private information such as their Social Security number.

“When people are under pressure and anxious, they may do something so quickly that they don’t think it through and don’t do their research,” Nofziger said.

MONEY

Fraudsters use money as bait, Efstathopoulos said. They may pose as tax or IRS professionals by saying that you will get a larger refund than expected if you pay them for their services or if you share your personal information.

Here are 3 types of scams to watch out for this tax season and how to avoid them

Check if it’s really the IRS contacting you

It is very important to know that the IRS never intervenes through unconventional means, said Dr. Zulfikar Ramzan, chief scientist at Aura, a digital security company. The IRS typically contacts taxpayers by physical mail through the U.S. Postal Service.

“Typically, they will ask you to contact them either through their website or by sending correspondence directly to their main address, which is easy to verify,” Ramzan explained.

A common identity theft scam occurs when someone calls you claiming to work for the IRS and demanding immediate payment, Nofziger said.

You can learn more about how the IRS contacts people here.

Search for tax specialists

If you need help from a tax professional, research them to make sure they aren’t impostors, Nofziger said.

“You’ll see ads for low-cost tax preparers who can make you more money than anyone else,” Nofziger said. “They will advertise on social media or open stores in shopping centers.”

To avoid getting scammed by fake tax preparers, Nofziger recommends researching reputable lists. Options include IRS Directory of Tax Professionals and the AARP Foundation Tax Assistance Locator.

Do not answer if you do not know who is calling

Scammers often contact you by phone, and Efstathopoulos recommends not sharing information about incoming calls.

“If my bank calls me and says, ‘Hello, I need some information,’ I say, ‘Thank you very much, I’ll call you back at the number I know is yours,'” Efstathopoulos said.

This makes it easier to know for sure that you are not talking to a scammer. Banks generally don’t call often unless there is suspicious activity on your account or you have already contacted them about a problem with your account.

If you’re receiving a lot of unknown calls that end up being scammers or robocalls, Nofziger recommends using the tools available on your phone to block spam. Check here how to do it on your iPhone and here for Android.

Use all the technology at your disposal

It’s always recommended to file your taxes early in case someone else tries to do it for you, Efstathopoulos said. But if that’s not an option, there are other steps you can take that will make you less vulnerable to scams. These include using the IRS pin system, having a password manager, and checking your computer for viruses.

Identity Protection PIN

The IRS offers an Identity Protection PIN, which is a six-digit number, to protect taxpayers from being misfiled for them. This number helps the IRS verify your identity when you file your return.

“Whenever you see an opportunity to enable two-factor authentication, take it and make sure it’s enabled,” Efstathopoulos recommended.

Password manager

Efstathopoulos also recommends using a password manager on your devices to ensure you’re using a complex password that scammers can’t guess.

Checking the credit report

Checking your credit report and bank statements regularly is a good practice because it can help you identify if someone has used your bank account without your knowledge, Ramzan said. If your bank lets you set alerts for large transactions, you should take advantage of this added security measure, he added.

Clean your computer

If you file your taxes online, you want to make sure your computer is virus-free, Ramzan said. Even if the tax filing software you use is secure, if your computer is infected with a virus, someone could steal your personal information.

Share what you know with your loved ones

If you’ve taken all the necessary steps to protect yourself, you might want to help those around you, Nofziger said. Whether you’re helping your grandparents block unknown calls on their phone or sharing tips with your neighbors, talking to others about how to protect themselves from scams can be very effective.

Scams don’t stop with tax season

Even if you’ve already filed your taxes, there are other scams you should watch out for. Refund and tax correction scams are among the most common.

“We know that wherever the money is, the criminals will be there,” Nofziger said. “And that includes this time where money is being sent to people.”

NBC Chicago

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