Learn how to protect yourself from tax scams

It’s February, which means it’s tax season. And while many of us will be dreaming of receiving a potentially big tax refund, there will surely be scam artists looking to swindle you out of yours.

The Pennsylvania Department of Revenue on Wednesday released several ways you can protect yourself against these scams.

One of the most common scams is when someone poses as a government agency and sends you a so-called “final notice” for payment of some claimed debt. The notices from the “Tax Processing Center” threaten the seizure of a taxpayer’s property if the recipient of the notice fails to make immediate payment to the “State of Pennsylvania.” The notices also provide an 800-number to call to “avoid enforcement.”

This is a classic scam that uses pressure tactics and fear to motivate the recipient into taking immediate action. Criminals may also access public records so they can include taxpayer-specific information on the notices to make them appear legitimate.

Another common scam is “phishing,” or sending out fraudulent messages en masse that contains malicious software known as “malware” designed to steal your passwords, bank account information, credit card number, Social Security number or any other sensitive personal information.

Scammers often use this information to steal your money, your identity or both.

Scammers will also try to pose as “trusted” businesses and design real-looking phony websites in the hopes of tricking someone into providing their information.

So what can you do to protect yourself? The Department of Revenue suggests the following:

¯ Look for imposters: Many times criminals will pose as a government entity or an official business. If you are targeted by a con artist through the mail, phone or email, do not provide personal information or money until you are sure you are speaking to a legitimate representative.

¯ Examine notifications and electronic messages: Criminals often design vague communications to cast a wide net to lure in as many victims as possible. Examine questionable notices for identifying information that can be verified. Look for blatant factual errors and other inconsistencies, such as a fake return address. If the notice is unexpected and states “This Is Your Final Notice,” take a moment and verify its legitimacy. The Department of Revenue will send multiple letters to taxpayers if there is a legitimate liability owed.

¯ Approach unusual attachments and links with caution: Scammers may include a link or an attachment to an email that is infected with malware that can download malicious software. Spyware can track the recipient’s keystrokes to obtain passwords, Social Security numbers, credit card numbers or other sensitive information.

¯ Unusual payment methods: Avoid scenarios where you are asked to pay your debt with reloadable debit cards, gift cards or money wiring services. The Department of Revenue and other government agencies will never ask you to pay an outstanding liability using these payment methods.

¯ Conduct research online: Using information included in a potentially fraudulent notice, such as company name, address or telephone number, conduct a search online to see if a scam has been reported by other people or government agencies.

But what can you do if you figure out you’ve become the victim of a scam?

The Department of Revenue has a Fraud Detection and Analysis Unit dedicated to assisting victims of identity theft and combating tax refund fraud.

If you are a victim of identity theft or discover a fraudulent Pennsylvania personal income tax return was filed using your identity, contact the Fraud Detection and Analysis Unit at (717) 772-9297 or RA-RVPITFRAUD@pa.gov.

Getting a tax refund can be a nice financial benefit. Taking certain steps and educating yourself on how to spot a scam will help you make sure someone doesn’t steal it from you.