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As Tax Season Continues, Beware of Scams

As sure as the taxman cometh each year, so do the scam artists.

The Internal Revenue Service is warning U.S. taxpayers to be prepared for a steady increase in scams and virus attacks via e-mail, telephone and the Web as the April 15 tax-filing deadline approaches.

"We see a big upswing in complaints about these phishing emails January through April during the tax filing season," IRS spokeswoman Nancy Mathis said.

The most common type of scam arrives via e-mails claiming to come from the IRS or Treasury Department. They typically try to either scare consumers into thinking there is an error with their tax filing, or that they are eligible for a tax rebate or benefit from the government economic stimulus package that just passed on Capitol Hill.

These so-called "phishing" e-mails typically arrive in an e-mail that urges users to visit a site, which in turn prompts visitors to enter their personal and financial data, information that is then sent off to identity thieves.

Regardless of the type of come-on used in these scams, the IRS wants taxpayer to hear one message loud and clear:

"The Internal Revenue Service does not communicate with taxpayers via unsolicited e-mail," said J. Russell George, treasury inspector general for tax administration. "Some of these bogus e-mails are so sophisticated that people who are uninformed can and do fall prey to this type of scam. That is why it is so imperative that we continue to get this message out to people."

On Feb. 6, the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT), warned Americans about a phishing scam that spoofed the IRS, offering recipients stimulus package payments. These e-mails include text that attempts to convince users to follow a link to a Web site or to complete an attached document.

These types of attacks, which prompt people to click on e-mailed links and download documents, also are frequently attempts to install malicious software that steals sensitive and financial information from infected systems, the government warns.

Since 2005, George's office has received nearly 2,000 complaints about phishing, and it estimates that at least 11,000 taxpayers have been victimized by these scams to date.

The IRS's Mathis said consumers seeking to take advantage of the government's Free File program -- which provides free tax preparation and online filing for taxpayers who had gross adjusted incomes of $56,000 or less in 2008 -- should be wary of counterfeit Web sites spoofing the Free File name in order to fleece consumers. Rather, individuals wishing to use Free File should follow links to the program directly from www.irs.gov.

While tax scams are most rampant during the first four months of the calendar year, tax scams of all shapes and sizes continue throughout the year, Mathis said.

"People need to be on their guard all 12 month of the year, because these phishing scams are so prevalent," Mathis said.

The IRS is encouraging consumers who receive phishing scams that impersonate the tax agency to forward the e-mails to phishing@irs.gov.

-- Brian Krebs

By washingtonpost.com Editors  |  February 14, 2009; 2:00 PM ET
Categories:  Safety Tips  
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