Outsmarting tax scams: Your guide to keeping your finances safe

January 17, 2024

Tax season brings scammers out of the woodwork. Learn how to identify their tricks and protect yourself from being a victim.

As if filing your taxes isn’t stressful enough, there’s something else you need to worry about during tax season: tax-related scams. Fraud can happen any time, of course, but the months leading up to the April filing deadline are particularly treacherous.

In order to protect yourself, it’s important to learn how to spot common schemes. Here’s how several of them work — plus steps you can take to stay safe and what to do if you become a victim.

The most common tax scams

Threats from scammers are always evolving, but these three are currently in circulation:

1. Tax identity theft

What it is: There are two types of tax identity theft to be on the lookout for. The first is when someone files a tax return in your name to collect your refund. You may only find out about this when you submit your legitimate tax return and the IRS rejects it because someone else has already filed using your Social Security number.

The second occurs when a person gets a job and uses your Social Security number for reporting their wages. In this case, you may receive a notice from the IRS indicating that you earned income from an employer you never actually worked for — and now owe taxes on those phantom wages. Also, if you receive any type of federal benefits, including unemployment or Social Security, you could receive a notice that your benefits are being reduced or stopped entirely because of your supposed higher income.

How to protect yourself: To prevent a fraudulent return from being filed in your name, you can request an Identity Protection PIN from the IRS. You’ll receive a new security code in the mail each year and submit the PIN with your tax return. Scammers without access to this code won't be able to file a return.

Filing your return as early as possible each tax season can help guard against fraud — essentially, you want to try to beat the scammers to it. In addition, read all mail from the IRS or other federal agencies so you can catch any suspicious activity.

2. IRS imposter scam

What it is: Scammers impersonate the IRS to collect sensitive personal data, like your Social Security number, date of birth and bank account information. In one variation of this scam, you may receive a call, text, email or social media message stating you have an unclaimed refund. Another version mentions unclaimed property, which doesn’t even fall under IRS jurisdiction.

When you’re online, you may be prompted to click on a link and enter personal information to claim your refund. Scammers might also ask you to send pictures of recent bank statements. Tens of thousands of Americans have lost a total of $28 million to IRS impostor scams since 2018, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

Some scammers even call demanding a payment to the IRS and threatening police action if you don’t comply. “There is a sense of urgency or persistent follow-ups that demand an immediate response or payment,” says Jodi Daniels, faculty member at IANS Research and founder and CEO of Red Clover Advisors, a data privacy company. “The goal is to create fear.”

How to protect yourself: Even if you feel pressured into answering phone calls or clicking on email links, avoid doing so. The IRS never communicates with taxpayers via email, text or social media. “Real IRS issues come in the mail on formal letterhead and require logging into the IRS or state tax revenue centers,” Daniels says. Another red flag is spelling or punctuation errors in correspondence.

3. Ghost preparer

What it is: With this scam, you hire a tax preparer to do your taxes, only to be “ghosted” by them before the work is completed. These so-called ghost preparers collect large upfront fees for preparing your taxes but never sign or file your return.

How to protect yourself: “A real tax preparer will have a business license and be registered with the secretary of state,” Daniels says. “They do not demand urgent information or full payment upfront.” All paid tax preparers need an IRS Preparer Tax Identification Number, so make sure you ask to see it.

The IRS has a searchable database of preparers, but not all credentialed ones are on it. Some states, such as New York and California, also provide a searchable database of professionals authorized to prepare returns in those states.

To find a reputable tax preparer, ask friends for recommendations and check for complaints with your local Better Business Bureau. Just be wary of promises of unusually high refunds, never sign a blank return and review your return before the preparer files it. Daniels also recommends double-checking the bank account number for direct deposit of your refund — make sure it’s your personal account, not a preparer's account.

What to do if you’re a victim of tax fraud

If you end up being scammed, don’t be too hard on yourself. Clever scammers are finding innovative ways to trick people. So give yourself a break — then take immediate action.

If a fraudulent tax return is filed in your name: You must respond within 10 calendar days of having your tax return rejected. Submit either an identity theft affidavit (Form 14039) or a police report stating that you’ve been a victim of identity theft. You can submit your form online or send a copy via mail or fax. Instructions are on the bottom of the form. 

If someone reports wages under your name: In this case, you may receive a letter from the IRS stating that you didn’t report wages. Along with following any specific instructions in the letter, submit an identity theft affidavit.

If your identity is stolen: In addition to contacting the IRS, you can report any identify theft to the FTC. To further protect your finances, you can ask the three major credit bureaus — Experian, TransUnion and Equifax — to add a fraud alert on your account or even put a credit freeze in place, which prevents anyone from opening a new credit account in your name. Daniels also recommends alerting the financial institution where you have your tax refund deposited so it can keep an eye out for suspicious activities.

If a preparer ghosts you: If you suspect you’ve been the victim of a ghost preparer, report the person to your local police department. Then file a Form 14157-A, Tax Return Preparer Fraud or Misconduct Affidavit with the IRS and send relevant backup materials.

Tax scammers may be getting more sophisticated, but using these best practices can keep you safe from becoming a victim.

Visit our tax resource center for more tips and information to help you navigate tax season and beyond.

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Money Moments: 8 dos and don’ts for saving money in your 30s

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A passion for fashion: How this student works the gig economy

Money Moments: 3 smart financial strategies when caring for aging parents

Helpful tips for safe and smart charitable giving

Growing your savings by going on a ‘money hunt’

Why a mobile banking app is a ‘must have’ for your next vacation

Tips to raise financially healthy kids at every age

How compound interest works

How to avoid being the victim of a digital payments scam

Is it time to get a shared bank account with your partner?

How I kicked my online shopping habit and got my spending under control

How to financially prepare for a military PCS

How to set yourself up for success in your first job

How to stay positive when searching for a job

Friction: How it can help achieve money goals

It's possible: 7 tips for breaking the spending cycle

What to consider before taking out a student loan

Earning in the gig economy: Gladys shares her story

Financial checklist: Preparing for military deployment

Here’s how to create a budget for yourself

Common unexpected expenses and three ways to pay for them

Webinar: Common budget mistakes (and how to avoid them)

Checking and savings smarts: Make your accounts work harder for you

Are savings bonds still a thing?

3 awkward situations Zelle can help avoid

Allowance basics for parents and kids

9 simple ways to save

Do you and your fiancé have compatible financial goals?

3 ways to keep costs down at the grocery store (and make meal planning fun)

What military service taught me about money management

6 pandemic money habits to keep for the long term

Money muling 101: Recognizing and avoiding this increasingly common scam

How to avoid student loan scams

From LLC to S-corp: Choosing a small business entity

Is online banking safe?

How-to guide: What to do if your identity is stolen

8 tips and tricks for creating and remembering your PIN

Recognize. React. Report. Caregivers can help protect against financial exploitation

Recognize. React. Report. Don't fall victim to financial exploitation

5 tips for seniors to stay a step ahead of schemers

Webinar: U.S. Bank asks: Are you safe from fraud?

Learn to spot and protect yourself from common student scams

College budgeting: When to save and splurge

How I did it: Paid off student loans

The A to Z’s of college loan terms

How to save money in college: easy ways to spend less

The password: Enhancing security and usability

Rent payments: What’s changing for commercial real estate

Government agency credit card programs and PCI compliance

BEC: Recognize a scam

Fraud prevention checklist

Risk management strategies for foreign exchange hedging

Government billing survey: The digital transformation of the payment experience

4 tips for protecting your business against Coronavirus-related scams

5 Ways to protect your government agency from payment fraud

Unexpected cost savings may be hiding in your payment strategy

3 reasons governments and educational institutions should implement service fees

Benefits of billing foreign customers in their own currency

Top 3 ways digital payments can transform the patient experience