Tax scam season: Be on high alert for these fraud schemes


worried man taking a tax scam phone call

From now through April 15, it’s the top tax scam season. Not that tax scams only happen in the first few months of the year, they can occur year-round. But criminals know that taxes are on your mind and they will try to take advantage of that.

Be alert for tax-related identity theft
With the frequency of large-scale data breaches, there’s a better than average chance that your personal information has been breached. Your data may even be in the hands of criminals, making you susceptible to identity theft. You may not be aware of this at all until you get a notice from the IRS about a tax filing that you never made. When you look into it, your realize that it is not just a mistake – you are the victim of a crime.

The IRS says that it’s not uncommon for identity theft victims to be unaware that they are compromised until they run into some type of tax problem or tax alert.

Here are warning signs that that the IRS says may indicate that you are a victim of tax-related identity theft:

  • You get a letter from the IRS inquiring about a suspicious tax return that you did not file.
  • You can’t e-file your tax return because of a duplicate Social Security number.
  • You get a tax transcript in the mail that you did not request.
  • You get an IRS notice that an online account has been created in your name.
  • You get an IRS notice that your existing online account has been accessed or disabled when you took no action.
  • You get an IRS notice that you owe additional tax or refund offset, or that you have had collection actions taken against you for a year you did not file a tax return.
  • IRS records indicate you received wages or other income from an employer you didn’t work for.

The IRS offers steps to take if you are a victim of tax-related identity theft, a data breach or employment related identity theft in their Taxpayer Guide to Identity Theft.

Phone impersonation and other common tax scams

Tax-related identity theft is only one type of season tax crime – be alert for these “usual suspects” that the IRS has identified as some of the most common scams:

Impersonation Telephone Scams – The IRS won’t call you to demand immediate payment via a debit card or gift card. They won’t send the police to your house to collect a debt or arrest you. See: How to know it’s really the IRS calling or knocking on your door

Impersonation email scams – the IRS does not send unsolicited emails.

Fake calls from Taxpayer Advocate Service numbers – spoofed calls from criminals  posing as IRS assistance services trying to extract personal information.

‘Ghost’ tax return preparer “Tax Transcript” email scam –  Don’t get caught by a phony tax prep scammer or promises to get your you refunds sooner.

A new version of a Social Security scam – A criminal poses as the IRS and threatens to cancel your SS number.

Check out our other fraud posts for more alerts on scams and tips to stay safe.. And here are more tax season tips from prior years:

Quick best practice tip for your 2020 financial and legal documents


young woman signing a financial document with two other people watching

It’s a new year – time to get in the habit of changing the year that you use when you write a quick check or date documents. But there’s another habit you should alter this year, according to police and other crime experts: write out the full year of 2020 in your handwritten dated documents, not just the abbreviated ’20. Failing to write the full year of 2020 might open you to costly fraud.

While it’s common to date documents in this format – 1/7/20 – the unique nature of this year’s date makes it too easy for a fraudster to change the year by simply adding more digits on the end. So your check or contract dated 1/7/20 could easily be altered to backdate it to 1/7/2019 or date it into the future as 1/7/2021.

Elizabeth Whitman of Whitman Legal Solutions talks about this in her article Will Abbreviating 2020 on Legal Documents Make You Vulnerable to Fraud?

She talks about why someone might do this, using an example of vintage violins with label changes that made the instruments older and consequently more valuable than they were. While labeling fraud on vintage musical instruments may not be something you have to worry about, she offers examples of why it might be worth your attention:

“Those who warn against abbreviating 2020 theorize that a scammer could backdate a document, such as a promissory note, to 2019. After that, the scammer could try to collect an extra year’s interest on the loan.

Commentators express similar concerns about postdating–that someone could change the date to try to cash a stale check. Or, they could try to force performance of an expired contract by make it appear that the contract was signed later than it was.”

Some say this fear might be overblown, that in prior years scammers might have altered dates on any two-digit year — but that just reinforces the importance of using a 4-digit year on written legal and financial documents – why take the risk? Whitman notes that while a consumer may be able to ultimately prove the fraud, that might entail an expenditure of time and money. Whitman says that although the risk of using an abbreviated date might be minimal, “it also doesn’t hurt to use the full year in a document signed in 2020–or in any other year.”

Her article also offers an handy list of document signature best practices, such as using a digital signature when possible, signing in blue ink, maintaining time-stamped paper copies and using dated cover letters – read more about these suggestions in her post.

Forged, altered or fake paperwork is a real thing – see our prior post on title washing scams that occur in used car purchases – a crime that costs $30 billion a year! Thieves and scammers are very creative in separating you from your money – a small step like using a 4-digit year in financial and legal documents that would make their job harder seems worth it.

Holiday fraud: How to avoid seasonal scammers


polic lineup with santa, Rudolph the Reindeer and a pretty elf

If it’s December, it’s prime holiday fraud season!

Because it’s the busiest season of the year, scammers work double time to try to maximize their take. And as many times as we’ve issued warnings, thieves are very creative about thinking up sneaky new ways to separate you from your money. The Better Business Bureau is on the case. Here are some of the top scams they see around the holidays.

Delivery scams and package thefts this holiday season – While just plain old theft of shipped packages from your doorstep or workplace is common, there are a few other things to watch out for. BBB says that phishing emails pose as official notices from delivery companies. These either contain a “tracking link” or a message that the shipper is having difficulty delivering a package to you with a number to call. Or they affix fake “missed delivery” tags on your door, asking you to call a phone number to reschedule your delivery – all are just ruses to get your personal information.

Social media ad scams – Last year, the BBB found that online purchase scams were the most common cons reported to Scam Tracker and the category with the most victims, many involving Facebook and Instagram ads. Watch out for products claiming to support charity, free trial offers, counterfeit merchandise and apps of unknown origin. Social media is also a hub for illegal gift exchange pyramid schemes. BBB says these pop up every year with new twists. When an offer seems too good to be true, it almost always is.

Is that Santa App safe? Better check it twice. BBB says that the Apple and Google app stores list tons of holiday-themed apps: children can video chat live with Santa himself, light the menorah, watch Santa feed live reindeer, track his sleigh on Christmas Eve, relay electronic Christmas wish-lists, or play Hanukkah games like dreidel. But many of these are invasive and may violate children’s privacy laws in the information they collect. For more, see our post on protecting your kids from ID theft.

Don’t get scammed out of a gift card this season – the BBB says “Before grabbing a gift card for a favorite store or restaurant, know that thieves are just as eager to use these gift cards before they’re presented to the intended recipient. Also, some retailers have terms and conditions as to how the gift card can be redeemed.” See our post about new consumer protections for prepaid debit cards.

Tips for avoiding job scams this holiday season – Many of us are looking for extra money over the holidays and a part-time seasonal job is a common way to earn that cash. But it’s also a time when scammers exploit that desire. BBB reminds you that legit employers will never ask for payment upfront for a job. They say to be wary of big money for small jobs and job offers that don’t require an interview.

8 Tips for dealing with holiday pop-up shops – BBB receives hundreds of complaints a year about temporary retail locations, reporting everything from poor quality merchandise to difficulty obtaining refunds after temporary stores have closed their doors. Pop-up shops can be fun but follow BBB’s tips in mind if you choose to buy from one of them.

See more holiday safety tips from the BBB and use their Scam Tracker to identify common scams near you.

Here are prior posts about more common holiday fraud schemes:

 

How to avoid rogue tow truck scams


couple watching their car loaded on a tow truck

Bad enough if you are in an auto accident – that’s stressful enough. You might be injured or at the very least, shaken up. Suddenly a tow truck appears on the scene saying they are from your insurance company. While that might seem like lucky timing, it should actually raise your suspicions. High pressure tactics from rogue tow truck operators can lead to exorbitant towing and storage fees or your car being taken to a body shop that is in league with the tower. The National Insurance Crime Bureau recently released a public service announcement to raise awareness about rogue tow truck operators and how to avoid becoming a victim.

NCIB offers these tips:

  • Never give permission to a tow truck operator who arrives unsolicited to take your vehicle.
  • If you or law enforcement did not call a tow truck to the scene, do not deal with that operator.
  • Do not provide tow truck operators with your insurance information.
  • Do not provide tow truck operators with personal lien holder information.
  • Determine that the tow truck signage is identical to what appears on any documentation the tow truck operator provides (they may say they “work with” your insurance company).
  • If the tow truck does not display signage identifying the name of the tow company, ask for company identification.
  • If a tow operator’s legitimacy is in doubt, call the police.
  • Do not give a tow truck operator permission to tow your vehicle until they:
    –Provide a printed price list, to include daily storage fees and miscellaneous charges that will apply if they tow your car (if the prices seem too high, ask the police or your insurance company to call a towing service for you).
    –Provide printed documentation indicating where the vehicle is being towed if it is not a location of your choosing.

The Coalition Against Insurance Fraud offers more information on tow truck cons and scams, as well as extensive tips to for what to expect and what your rights are.

Check out the full article but here are a few tips from their list:

Think ahead: Join an emergency road service club or organization such as AAA. Also know your auto insurer’s roadside assistance program, with the tollfree number printed on your insurance card. They’ll set you up with reputable towing firms and repair shops.

Photos. Take a photo of the scene, including the tow truck. Use your cell phone or a disposable camera stored in your glove compartment.

Complain. File complaints if you’re scammed. Contact your insurer, state insurance department, local Better Business Bureau and the police.

Know your rights. State laws protect you if your vehicle is towed while you were away, such as while shopping. Confirm and complain if you suspect violations of these rules in most states:

  • The property owner or manager of a business that had your vehicle towed must be at the scene and sign the towing authorization in most states;
  • The operator must leave a small sign at the scene. It should have the firm’s name, address, phone, reason for towing, and who requested the tow;
  • Towing firms must take a photo of your vehicle in the “illegal” spot and notify the local police department to ensure the car is not classified as stolen. Get the photos from the towing firm (though expect a fee); and
  • The towing operator must release your vehicle if you will not or cannot pay the requested towing free. This is true in most states, and then becomes a matter for civil courts.

Scam and Fraud roundup: The latest cons


young woman fraud victim looking distressed

Thieves are highly creative and spend 24-7 just trying to figure out ways to separate you from your money. Even if you are super safe and cautious, you can be a victim of a con, a phish or a fraud. Scams happen both online and off – but it’s quite efficient for criminals to mass target potential victims via the phone and email. Check our our roundup of some of the latest scams, according to some of our favorite security sources.

Social Security is not trying to take your benefits
The Federal Trade Commission posts a robocall of the latest scams which threaten to end your benefits. They offer this reminder:

  • Your Social Security number is not about to be suspended.
  • The real Social Security Administration will never call to threaten your benefits.
  • The real SSA will never tell you to wire money, send cash, or put money on a gift card.

American Express Phishing Attack Targets Customers
If you are an American Express cardholder, learn the email phishing and phone scams. Learn more about it and how to avoid it. Also remember this good advice:

Never click a link or download an attachment that you are not expecting
If the email came from your boss, pick up the phone and verify it. If it appears to come from a company you do business with, ignore the email and go directly to their website. From there, you can see if there is an issue with your account.

Don’t pay for help with student loans
If you have student loan debt, a program that promises to reduce or erase it might sound like just what you need. But some of these programs just take lots of your money and give you no help — or do only what you could have done easily by yourself.  Don’t pay for help finding money for College; Don’t pay for the Application for Federal Student Aid(FAFSA®) form – it’s free; Avoid scams for loan or forgiveness – you can contact the lender yourself. The Department of Education has a great resource on Avoiding Scams that offers detailed explanations of common scams and reputable sources for grants and scholarships. Also, see this one page handout: Don’t Get Scammed on Your Way to College

Don’t Fall for Equifax Settlement Scams
Scammers are looking to cash in on the buzz surrounding the Equifax data breach, specifically the ability for consumers to check their data and file a claim if they were affected. If you were a victim of the Equifax breach, learn how to avoid scammers and get to the legitimate sources.

The latest news on romance scams
People reported losing $143 million in romance schemes last year, more than any other type of fraud reported to the Federal Trade Commission.

How not to get scammed, according to a former con artist
You may recall Frank Abagnale – or if not him, you may recall Leonardo DiCaprio’s depiction of him in the 2002 Spielberg film, Catch Me If You Can. Abagnale was a highly successful conman until he was caught and served 5 year in prison decades ago. He later became a security consultant for the US government and FBI. Read his recent interview in Vox, where he talks about his latest book dealing with robocalls, IRS fraud, and good old-fashioned stolen passwords. He says these are still some of the leading ways that Americans lost $16.8 billion to scams in 2017. According to Abegnale, “Crime is basically the same; the only thing that’s changed is today there are so many forms of communication and the ability to scam someone from thousands of miles away without ever really having personal contact with them.” See our past post on Abegnale, A conman you should listen to.

Past posts on scams & fraud