Monday, March 12, 2012
Tax scams prevalent as filing deadline approaches
Never trust an e-mail claiming it's from the IRS.
As tax season begins to wind down and the deadline for filing federal income tax returns approaches, taxpayers should take caution to ensure they don't become the victim of a tax scam.
The Texas Attorney General's office is warning people of an email reportedly sent by the IRS which asks people to reply with personal information. Any information gained from the email, such as a social security number, can then be used to aid in stealing a person's identity.
Luckily, it is easy to determine the authenticity of emails that are "sent" by the IRS, said Jim Smith, a CPA and the managing director at Smith, Jackson, Boyer & Bovard.
"There are a number of email scams out there, but as a blanket rule, remember that the IRS will never contact any taxpayer by email," Smith said. "They are not allowed to use email and anyone who gets an email sent from the IRS, no matter how official looking it is, should delete it immediately since it is a scam."
Smith said the IRS has several ways of getting a hold of people. He said agents could show up at a person's door, but that usually only occurs when a taxpayer has a fairly serious tax problem. He said first contact typically occurs via U.S. mail or by telephone, although agents can also send faxes to taxpayers. Even after contact has been made, Smith said to not necessarily take the agent's word for it that they are legitimate.
"If they call you on the telephone you can get their name, badge, or ID number and then call the local office to confirm that they are who they say they are," he said. "If the IRS shows up at your door, you are allowed to decline to talk with them until you have representation from either a CPA or an attorney."
Dr. Lynne Vieraitis, a criminologist at the University of Texas at Dallas specializing in identity theft, said tax scams are an easy way for criminals to get information from victims.
"They are trying to get any kind of personal information, whether it is a social security number or even a bank account number," she said. "With this information, they can file false tax returns, get loans or open up credit cards. All they need is one person to respond and, depending on that person's financial situation, they can make a lot of money."
Vieraitis -- who along with Heith Copes co-wrote the book, Identity Thieves: Motives and Methods, which comes out in April -- said she didn't know how widespread email scams were, but said there are other scams which utilize the U.S. mail and even person-to-person interaction.
"This is not just an online problem," she said. "I know a person who hired a person to help them prepare their taxes and that person ended up stealing their social security number. People need to make sure they continuously monitor their earnings statements to make sure no one else is reporting income under your social security number."
When it comes to choosing a reputable CPA, Smith said there are several steps a person can take to ensure they don't get scammed.
"The first thing you can do is go to the Texas State Board of Public Accountancy website and see if the person has a valid license," he said. "Then you can Google them and see if they have a website which can contain additional information such as their contact information, a resume, and their experience. You should also check with other people who have done business with the CPA."
Smith recommends setting up a meeting with the CPA in order to get to know them before you agree to have them work for you. He said this meeting is also beneficial for the CPA, since it will allow them to learn about the prospective client before they begin working for them.
"We have had clients come to us who may want us to do things we are not particularly comfortable with and might be illegal," Smith said. "I like to get to know them before I agree to work for them."
He added that most, but not all, CPAs refrain from cold calling potential clients and any firms that use the telephone should be checked out carefully. Smith said the majority of his firm's business comes through referrals from existing clients, although using postcards and letters is also a way that many CPA firms attract new customers. Regardless of the method of communication, Smith said a few simple steps should ensure taxpayers only deal with legitimate accounting firms and don't fall victim to tax scams.
Anyone who receives email messages purportedly from the IRS should report the email to the IRS at email@example.com.
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