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12 IRS Tax Refund Scams – Common Frauds to Avoid in 2021

Tax scams happen year-round, but they tend to crop up most often during tax season. It’s easy to see why. During the 2019 fiscal year, the IRS collected more than $3.5 trillion in taxes and issued more than $452 billion in tax refunds. Whenever those kinds of dollars are involved, there are bound to be fraudsters trying to take advantage of people.

To avoid becoming a victim, it helps to be aware of some of the more common types of tax scams.

Pro tip: If you’re filing your tax return through a preparer like H&R Block, they’ll guide you through the entire process. Along the way, if you think you’ve become the target of a scam, an H&R Block tax advisor will be able to walk you through the steps you need to take.

Top Tax Scams to Watch Out For

Each year, the IRS publishes its annual list of tax scams called the Dirty Dozen. These grifts are wide-ranging and involve more than tax preparer fraud. In fact, many are tax-related versions of common schemes you’ve seen before.

1. Phishing

Tax season is a ripe time for scammers to send fake emails and set up websites designed to look like the IRS or a reputable tax preparation company like H&R Block. These phishing emails and websites are designed to steal personal data.

Phishing attacks can take several forms. You might get an email telling you your account or tax return is locked, asking you to update your tax filing information, claiming a tax payment was deducted from your bank account, or telling you the IRS owes you money.

These phishing attempts are a ploy to get you to provide your personal information or click on a link or open an attachment that will download malware onto your computer, allowing the scammer to steal your identity.

Never respond to unsolicited emails requesting personal information. If you receive an unexpected email claiming to be from the IRS or your tax preparation company, don’t click on the link or open an attachment. Instead, open a different browser and navigate to IRS.gov or your tax preparer’s website address and log into your account there.

2. Fake Charities

In times of need, charitably minded people rise to the occasion and offer financial help. But before you pull out your wallet or checkbook, ensure you’re giving to a legitimate charity.

Groups pose as charitable organizations to ask for donations year-round, but especially after a natural disaster or other crisis. These groups may have names similar to legitimate charities, making it harder to spot the fakes.

Before donating, do your research. Donate to recognizable and established charities or vet unfamiliar organizations using the IRS’s tax-exempt organization search tool, CharityWatch, or GuideStar.

3. Threatening Impersonator Phone Calls

Getting a phone call or letter from the IRS tends to scare people, and fraudsters are more than happy to take advantage of that fear.

You might receive a call or voicemail from someone claiming to be an IRS agent. The caller threatens unpleasant or downright frightening consequences, such as license revocation, arrest, or deportation, unless you provide payment immediately. The call may even seem legitimate because the scammer spoofed the IRS’s phone number, so it shows up as “IRS” on your caller ID.

IRS employees never call people to demand immediate payment or threaten or verbally abuse you. If you’re worried you have a tax problem, call the IRS at 800-829-1040 or get help from a tax professional at a company like H&R Block. They can help you respond to any legitimate IRS issues and ensure you stay in good standing with the IRS.

4. Social Media Scams

People share a lot of information about themselves on social media. By looking at your social media profiles, a scammer can gather information like your full name, date of birth, hometown, and names of close connections.

The criminal then impersonates a friend or family member via email, text, or direct message to gather financial information, ask for financial help, sell products that don’t exist, or request a donation to a fake charity.

To protect yourself from social media scams, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recommends:

  • Limiting what you share publicly
  • Checking out a company or nonprofit organization to make sure it’s legitimate before purchasing a product or donating based on an ad or post
  • Being cautious about new social media connections who want to rush into a friendship or romantic relationship
  • Confirming messages from friends and family members are legitimate before you provide financial assistance or share personal information

5. Economic Impact Payments or Refund Theft

Scammers have been working to steal tax refunds for years. They steal taxpayers’ Social Security numbers and file false returns to have refunds diverted into their own bank accounts.

The new economic impact payments, also known as stimulus payments, create new opportunities for fraud. According to the Identity Theft Resource Center, economic impact payment theft might look like:

  • Nursing homes requiring residents to sign over their stimulus checks
  • Mail thieves stealing checks from postal trucks
  • Con artists having other people’s payments deposited into their own bank accounts

If you think someone stole your tax refund or stimulus check, call the IRS at 800-829-1040 and report it to the FTC at IdentityTheft.gov.

6. Older Adult Fraud

Many tax scams target older adults. The IRS list of common tax scams notes that phishing scams linked to the COVID-19 pandemic have been a major threat this year.

If you are or care for an older adult, be on the lookout for fake emails, text messages, phishing phone calls, and social media scams that try to steal personal information like Social Security numbers and bank account information.

7. Scams Targeting Non-English Speakers

People with limited knowledge of the English language, such as recent immigrants, are common targets for scammers.

They may receive scam robocalls or phone calls, letters, or emails requesting personal information or demanding payment. Like other phone scams, the criminal may threaten victims with jail time or deportation.

If you receive a threatening phone call from someone claiming to be from the IRS, don’t give the caller any information.

8. Offer-in-Compromise Mills

For people struggling with tax debt, a promise to settle your debt for “pennies on the dollar” can be downright irresistible.

While it’s true that offers in compromise (OIC) are available to some taxpayers, these options to settle your tax debt for less than you owe are difficult to qualify for.

Unfortunately, unscrupulous companies act as mills, churning out applications and charging delinquent taxpayers hefty fees to complete OIC applications the IRS is almost certain to deny.

Don’t fall victim to too-good-to-be-true promises. If you can’t pay the IRS money you owe, a qualified tax professional can help you figure out which payment options are right for you and help you negotiate with the IRS.

9. Fake Payments With Repayment Demands

This common tax scam involves filing a bogus tax return using your real Social Security number or individual taxpayer identification number and having the refund deposited into your bank account. Then the thief calls you claiming to be an IRS employee. The caller says the IRS deposited the refund into your account by mistake and asks you to buy a gift card or prepaid debit card for the amount of the refund.

By the time the real IRS figures out the tax return was a fake, the scammer (and the money) is long gone.

Remember, while there are many ways to pay the IRS, it will never demand payment via any specific method, such as a gift card. If you receive an unexpected refund in your account, call your bank or the IRS to investigate.

10. Payroll & HR Scams

More people are working from home these days than ever before, and scammers hope to take advantage of the distance between employees and their payroll or human resources departments.

Thieves may take over your email account or spoof your email address, then send an email to your employer’s human resources department asking a payroll manager to change your direct deposit. You’re not aware of an issue until your paycheck gets deposited into someone else’s bank account.

Many accounting and finance departments are wise to these schemes, and they’ve started requiring employees to confirm such changes to their bank accounts over the phone or in person.

11. Ransomware

Ransomware is a type of malicious software that takes over your computer, network, or server, locking you out until you pay a ransom to the perpetrator. It can come in the form of an email attachment or take advantage of a security weakness in your system. The criminal might demand a few hundred dollars or thousands of dollars to let you access your data again.

Tax preparers are often targets of this type of scam since criminals know they have a lot of sensitive client data they need to access during tax time. For that reason, it’s crucial to work with tax preparers who take security seriously. Don’t be afraid to ask your tax pro what they’re doing to ensure your data is safe.

Whether you’re a tax preparer or not, if you have important data, keep your software up to date; turn firewalls on; avoid questionable websites, links, and attachments; and install antivirus software.

12. Unscrupulous Return Preparer Fraud

Return preparer fraud takes many forms. These scams may include:

  • Promises of a big refund before looking at your records or charging fees based on a percentage of the refund
  • Filing a false return in your name and collecting a refund you didn’t know was coming
  • Falsely inflating your deductions or expenses on a tax return so you pay less than you owe or receive a larger refund
  • Saying you can avoid paying taxes by claiming the federal income tax is illegal or voluntary or you can refuse to pay taxes on religious or moral grounds
  • Selling complex tax-avoidance schemes that are too good to be true
  • Selling the identities of their clients since they have access to information like names, addresses, birth dates, and Social Security numbers someone can use to steal someone’s identity or file a false return.

According to the IRS, these scam artists advertise widely. They might have phony storefronts to attract their victims or spread the word through trusted community groups or churches, where trust is high.

To avoid becoming a victim of return preparer fraud, avoid working with tax preparers you don’t know. If you need tax help, work with a reputable company, like H&R Block, or do some research to make sure you’re working with a qualified tax preparer.


Final Word

When big dollars are involved, there are criminals looking to make a quick buck. Be alert to the types of scams out there, including new ones, like coronavirus scams. Take steps to protect yourself, such as keeping your Social Security number private and using strong passwords — especially for financial accounts. Shred bank statements and other documents with personally identifying information and consider getting a locking mailbox to prevent identity theft.

If you suspect you’ve been the victim of any of these tax scams, the IRS’s guide to identity theft has several additional resources and steps you can take to protect yourself.

Janet Berry-Johnson
Janet Berry-Johnson is a Certified Public Accountant. Before leaving the accounting world to focus on freelance writing, she specialized in income tax consulting and compliance for individuals and small businesses. She lives in Omaha, Nebraska with her husband and son and their rescue dog, Dexter.

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