It’s tax time; don’t fall prey to scammers

It’s the beginning of March and for the first time in decades, my husband and I are just now getting around to filing our income tax returns.

We usually get this important annual task accomplished in early February, as soon as all our required documents arrive, but this year we got a bit behind.

The slight delay gave me feelings of consternation, especially when I received a media release from Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine recently pointing out how waiting too long can sometimes invite scams.

Regular Tribune Chronicle readers know we often publish news briefs about police and law enforcement warning against falling victim to thieves and ways to stay safe. So it should be no surprise that criminals have now found a way to scam people out of their hard-earned tax refunds.

Here’s an example offered by DeWine: If you get a call claiming you owe back taxes or a warrant is out for your arrest, chances are you’re being targeted by a frequent type of tax scam.

The setup is simple, he says. A caller pretending to represent the IRS startles you with accusations and threats. You’re told to dial a specific number right away and when you do, you’re instructed to send money or provide personal information to resolve the supposed problem. The IRS imposter directs you to purchase gift cards and read the card numbers over the phone. The con artist then drains the value of the cards, making it all but impossible to trace or recover the money.

The real IRS, of course, never demands immediate payments over the phone or asks you to settle a legitimate debt with gift cards.

DeWine tells us that tax preparation season is also prime time for identity thieves attempting to steal your personal information, file a fraudulent tax return or illicitly snag your refund.

According to the IRS, another scam aimed at human resources or payroll employees surged significantly last year. In this scheme, an email appearing to come from a supervisor or the head of the organization instructs the worker to forward all employees’ W-2s. It may appear legitimate, but the email is actually part of a phishing scam. Any thefts of W-2s should be reported to the IRS immediately.

We have reported some tips for employers and payroll officials in our weekly “IRS Tax Tip” column that runs each Sunday on our business page.

So what’s the first tip offered by the IRS and DeWine’s office to avoid getting caught in a tax scam?

File your tax return promptly!

Experts say early filing eliminates opportunities for potential impostors to file a tax return in your name and steal your refund. Yes, that’s right. Industrious thieves will find many ways to get rich on your money.

Here are some other tips that experts offer to help keep you from falling prey:

Ignore threatening robocalls. If an unfamiliar caller insists you’re about to be arrested for not paying taxes, it’s likely to be a scam. Don’t respond to the call, and don’t make a payment or give out personal information on the phone.

Protect your personal information.

Use a secure internet connection to file taxes online. If you file by mail, take your completed return directly to the post office. Shred unneeded documents containing sensitive information before discarding them.

Research professional tax preparers. Check a tax preparer’s credentials before trusting them with personal records or information. Review the listings in the IRS’s directory of federal tax return preparers or ask trusted friends or family members for referrals.

Watch out for phishing scams. Approach email messages that look like they came from a familiar source or an institution with caution: The message may be part of a phishing scam.

For help, contact www.OhioProtects.org or 800-282-0515. Report IRS or U.S. Treasury impersonation scams to the U.S. Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration at www.treasury.gov/tiga or 800-366-4484. Federal and state tax identity theft should be reported to the IRS and the Ohio Department of Taxation, respectively.

blinert@tribtoday.com

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