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Beware of ransomware: Tax scam season begins now

E-filing begins Monday. Hackers could hold your tax files for ransom and then not only get you to pay them, but also steal your tax refund.

Monday is the first day that Americans can file their income tax returns. Those who are anticipating a refund may jump on this quickly and file right away. Scammers hope you procrastinate so they can get to your money first.

The IRS says there were 649,000 confirmed fraudulent returns attempted to obtain $3.1 billion in refunds in 2018.

With always evolving scams, one thing to watch out for this year is ransomware that could prevent you from accessing tax files on your computer. Adam Levin, founder of data security company CyberScout, tells the Detroit Free Press that time-sensitive files could be frozen and only released when a ransom is paid to the hackers. Even worse, the hackers could release the files once they get your money and then still use the information in those files to try stealing your tax refund. 

Filing early is one of your best lines of defense, which is why the scammers will start early and work all the way to the April 15 deadline. The IRS will reject a tax return if it has received another with the same social security number. You can e-file starting Monday.

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The biggest key to all this is protecting your information. Do not give out personal information, most important of which is your social security number. Even if someone claims they have the information and want you to verify it, don't.

If someone who you don't know calls or emails you out of nowhere claiming to be with the IRS or some other official agency and wants that information, don't give it out. The IRS will never call or email you to ask for that information. And don't assume your caller ID is getting the caller's real identity. It could be false.

Also, do not fall for phone scams that claim police are on their way to arrest you if you don't give out that information. Scammers will try this ploy on anyone, even police themselves. Just watch this video of a call to a captain with the Apex Police Department in North Carolina last year.

Do not click on any email links unless you know the email is from someone you completely trust. Be sure to double-check the address you are receiving the email from because hackers could be spoofing you.

The IRS has these tips for identifying tax-related identity theft

  • You get a letter from the IRS inquiring about a suspicious tax return that you did not file.
  • You can’t e-file your tax return because of a duplicate Social Security number.
  • You get a tax transcript in the mail that you did not request.
  • You get an IRS notice that an online account has been created in your name.
  • You get an IRS notice that your existing online account has been accessed or disabled when you took no action.
  • You get an IRS notice that you owe additional tax or refund offset, or that you have had collection actions taken against you for a year you did not file a tax return.
  • IRS records indicate you received wages or other income from an employer you didn’t work for.

If you think you have been a victim of tax-related identity theft, you can submit this form to the IRS.

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