The often-dreaded April 15th deadline for filing tax returns to the federal and state governments is just under a month away. It's a busy season for tax preparers - both professional and amateur.
But in the haste and the pressure many feel to get our taxes filed, it is also a season in which some of us could fall victim to scams or other fraud. The sophistication of tax scams has been on the rise for a few years now, according to tax consultant Nick Hammernik.
"2014 tax season is when we really started to notice things happening," he says. "During that time we were getting tax returns that were being rejected by the electronic filing system with the IRS because the tax return was already filed under their Social Security Number, which pretty much means that someone got a hold of their Social Security Number and filed a phony tax return under their name."
Victims of this kind of scam do have recourse. Hammernik says they generally file a paper copy of their taxes with an identity theft affidavit and a copy of their legal identification. In response, the IRS issues them a pin number for the next time they file their taxes, and a different pin number for each additional year.
While Hammernik says issuing a pin number to everyone filing taxes may increase security, he admits that scammers would likely just start looking for ways to get hold of the pin numbers instead. Many scams depend on people being tricked by the scammers over phone or through email.
"The IRS is never going to call you on the phone," says Hammernik. "The way that they correspond is through the mail and it's going to be multiple mailings spread out over years."
He warns that any financial information can be valuable to scammers and advises "to keep any financial records that you have, physical copies in a secure location, locked up. Electronic copies, you want to make sure that those are encrypted or stored in a secure location."
Scammers often gain access to your computer by viruses spread by links in emails. "Anything online that you think is suspicious, do not click on it, do not respond to it," says Hammernik.
He suggests reporting any suspicious emails or phone calls by contacting the IRS directly at: phishing@IRS.gov.