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: 3 tips for planning an extended leave of absence

How to test new business ideas

La aplicación bancaria que necesitas como padre primerizo

How can I help my student manage money?

Bank from home with these digital features

7 steps to keep your personal and business finances separate

Is your employer long term disability insurance enough?

8 steps to choosing a health insurance plan

7 things to know about long-term care insurance

How I did it: Switched career paths by taking an unexpected pivot

The Anaheim Ballet: Making a difference through dance

Year-end financial checklist

How to prepare for a recession: 6 steps to take

3 ways to gain loyalty with your customers

How I pivoted my business during COVID-19

Comparing term vs. permanent life insurance

The San Francisco bridal shop that’s been making memories for 30 years

How four women pivoted amidst a pandemic

Community behind Elsa’s House of Sleep

Achieving their dreams through a pre-apprenticeship construction program

How Lip Esteem is empowering women

How I did it: Transitioned from the military to a private sector career

How running a business that aligns with core values is paying off

How Gentlemen Cuts helps its community shine

How to search for jobs (and interview) in a virtual job market

4 steps to finding a charity to support

Meet the Milwaukee businessman behind Funky Fresh Spring Rolls

Tech lifecycle refresh: A tale of two philosophies

How to choose the right rewards credit card for you

5 steps to selecting your first credit card

How to winterize your vehicle

How to be prepared for tax season as a gig worker

6 questions students should ask about checking accounts

What you need to know as the executor of an estate

How to build a content team

CRE trends

7 diversification strategies for your investment portfolio

Year end tax planning tips

4 major asset classes explained

ETF vs. mutual fund: What’s the difference?

Effects of inflation on investments

What applying for store credit card on impulse could mean

Credit: Do you understand it?

What types of credit scores qualify for a mortgage?

Test your loan savvy

How to manage money in the military: A veteran weighs in

How to roll over your 401(k)

4 times to consider rebalancing your portfolio

How do I prequalify for a mortgage?

Can you take advantage of the dead equity in your home?

Home equity: Small ways to improve the value of your home

Is a home equity line of credit (HELOC) right for you?