Millions of folks are working diligently these last few days before the April 18 (19th in Maine and Massachusetts) tax filing deadline.
Unfortunately, that tax-focused group includes criminals.
This afternoon the Internal Revenue Service issued a warning to tax professionals of a new scam that's just started showing up in some tax prep offices. In this latest iteration of tax identity theft, cyber-criminals obtain remote control of preparers' computer systems, complete and file client tax returns and redirect refunds to the thieves' accounts.
The IRS says that although it knows of only a handful of cases to date, it wanted to get the word out because of the potential threat just before the April deadline.
To guard against this and other tax scams, the IRS urges all tax preparers to:
- Run a security "deep scan" to search for viruses and malware.
- Strengthen passwords for both computer access and software access. Make sure passwords are at least eight characters (more is better) with a mix of numbers, letters and special characters.
- Be alert for phishing scams: do not click on links or open attachments from unknown senders.
- Educate all staff members about the dangers of phishing scams in the form of emails, texts and calls.
- Review any software that employees use to remotely access your office network and/or your IT support vendor uses to remotely troubleshoot technical problems and support your systems. Remote access software is a potential target for bad actors to gain entry and take control of a machine.
Tax professionals can get more advice on safeguarding taxpayer data in IRS Publication 4557. That document includes a checklist to help safeguard taxpayer information and enhance office security.
Individuals beware, too: While this latest tax identity theft scheme may be focused on tax preparers, individuals need to stay alert, too.
The IRS has seen an increase of around 400 percent in phishing and malware incidents nationwide this tax season compared to 2015.
When making calls, scam artists frequently masquerade as IRS agents, representatives of a tax software company or even as state revenue department employees. Some of the callers are aggressive, threatening to arrest, deport or revoke the driver's license of their victims if they don’t get the money.
By email, the crooks try enticing people to click on links in official-looking messages containing questions related to their tax filing or tax refunds.
The bottom line for taxpayers and tax pros alike is to be alert and suspicious.
And don't let down your guard after the filing deadline passes.
"After the tax deadline, watch out for these scammers promising a refund or threatening you with an unexpected tax bill," advises IRS Commissioner John Koskinen.
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