Online Tax Scams (and How to Avoid Them)

In the old days, tax scammers worked the old-fashioned way: they stole your paper tax return out of your mailbox. With millions of people moving to online filing every year, it's not exactly surprising that the scammers have likewise moved online. So how can you avoid having your personal information compromised or stolen by an Internet identity thief?

Beware of "stimulus money" offers or other promises of "free" money from the government. While it's true that Congress is considering extending the payroll tax cut for another year, that tax cut means that your paychecks will be a tiny bit larger in 2012. You won't get a massive check at the beginning of the year or, for example, an email saying that you have to enter your bank account information through some online form in order for you to claim your money.

Beware of tax preparation services you haven't heard of. Get referrals from friends you trust, check with the Better Business Bureau for complaints, and do your research. Don't trust your salary information, address, and Social Security number with a service that only appears to exist online and doesn't have a physical office you can visit.

Don't download that form. The IRS will never contact you by email—it relies on the good old US Postal Service for important taxpayer communications. So if you do get an email from "the IRS" you can feel free to ignore it. If that email has an attached PDF that you're asked to download and fill out, junk it immediately. If you download the form, chances are you'll get a lot more than just a PDF—you could end up with malware on your machine.

As always, as tax-filing season gets into full swing, it's best to stay alert and remember that more people than the IRS may be interested in your tax return. Requests for information and, unfortunately, offers of help, may not come from trustworthy people. Keep your private data private, don't be too quick to respond to scaremongering emails, and use strong security software on your computer.

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