Avoiding Online Tax Scams

Cybercriminals love tax season.

The enormous amounts of valuable personal and financial information shared online during this time of year make it a haven for thieves – and they are doing everything they can to take full advantage of the opportunity tax season brings them. They are masters at social engineering. So, during this time of increased potential for having your personal information exposed, it’s critically important to take steps to use the internet safely.

Remember that your personal information is like money. Identity thieves continue their tax-time fraud exploits on two fronts: tax identity fraud and IRS imposter scams. By making informed choices when sharing your personal information, by filing your tax returns as early as possible and by verifying that you’re speaking to the IRS, you can thwart these identity thieves.

Here are four ways cybercriminals try to take advantage of taxpayers during tax season:

  • IRS impersonation scams: Callers claiming to be IRS employees might call and insist that you owe money and that it must be paid as soon as possible via gift card or wire service. If the call isn’t picked up, they leave an emergency callback message. The IRS will never call you to demand immediate payment. They will mail you a bill if you owe money.
  • Marked increase in phishing, email, malware and phone schemes: Watch for unsolicited emails, texts, social media posts, fake websites or phone calls that might prompt you to click a link or share personal and financial information. Cybercriminals can use such information to steal your money and/or your identity. Unfamiliar links or attachments can also contain viruses, spyware or other malware that get installed on your computer or mobile device without your knowledge.
  • Fraudulent tax returns: File your tax return as soon as possible. The IRS only accepts one tax return per Social Security number. If you file early, it becomes impossible for a fraudster to submit another return with your personal information.
  • Tax preparer fraud: The overwhelming majority of tax preparers provide honest services, but some unsavory individuals might target unsuspecting taxpayers, and the result can be refund fraud and/or identity theft. The IRS reminds anyone filing a tax return that their preparer must sign it with their IRS preparer identification number.

How to Protect Yourself

The National Cybersecurity Alliance offers some easy-to-use tips to help you protect yourself:

  • Keep all machines clean. Having updated software on all devices that connect to the internet is critical. This includes security software, web browsers and operating systems for PCs, Macs and mobile devices.
  • Turn on multi-factor authentication. Many popular email services and financial institutions provide this security option, in which you are prompted to enter a code (sent via text or email) after logging in. Generally, you have to opt in to enable multi-factor authentication, so check for the option in the security settings of your accounts.
  • Make better passwords. Short or easy-to-guess passwords are like giving cyberthieves your banking PIN. Use longer passwords that use a combination of capital and lowercase letters as well as numbers and symbols.
  • Get savvy about Wi-Fi hotspots. Public wireless networks are not secure. Criminals can potentially intercept internet connections while you are filing highly personal information on public Wi-Fi. 
  • When in doubt, throw it out. Links in emails are often the way cyberthieves get access to your personal information. Avoid clicking on links in unsolicited emails. If an offer seems too good to be true, it probably is. Delete these messages.
  • Think before you act. Ignore communications that implore you to act immediately – especially if you are told you owe money to the IRS and it must be paid promptly. 
  • File securely. Only submit your taxes on secure https sites. But remember, just because a website URL contains https doesn’t mean the site is legitimate.
  • File early. The IRS only accepts one tax return per Social Security number. If you file early, it becomes impossible for another tax return to be filed using your personal information.

Related Resources

Here are a few resources that can help you protect your identity and be safer and more secure online this tax season – and year-round:

About This Page

Content is provided by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Stop.Think.Connect. public awareness campaign aimed at increasing the understanding of cyberthreats and empowering the American public to be safer and more secure online.

The campaign’s main objective is to help you become more aware of growing cyber threats and arm you with the tools to protect yourself, your family and your community. For more information, visit www.dhs.gov/stopthinkconnect.