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Online tax scammers keep the scares coming year-round

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There's one terrifying ghoul who hangs around long after Halloween. In fact, he and his ilk have been busy all year.

It's the tax scammer.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) just this week warned that scammers are sending yet another phony Internal Revenue Service email about COVID-19 relief payments.

"There's a fake IRS email that keeps popping into people's inboxes. It says that you can get a third Economic Impact Payment (EIP) if you click a link that lets you 'access the form for your additional information' and 'get help' with the application," says Cristina Miranda of the FTC's Division of Consumer and Business Education.

"But the link is a trick," writes Miranda in her FTC blog post. "If you click it, a scammer might steal your money and your personal information to commit identity theft. It's yet another version of the classic government impersonator scam."

Year-round scams: The FTC warning comes as October, which also is the annual National Cyber Security Awareness month, winds down.

As the internet has become a fixture in our personal and business lives, it's also made sensitive data more accessible.

Most of us willingly divulge our private data to multiple e-commerce stores, banking websites, personal email accounts, and myriad other digital locations. That's all accessible to anyone with the right access.

Criminals know that, too. They target these sites that collect consumer data. When they're successful, the breaches put all of us at risk.

Scammers go further. They concoct schemes to get us to hand over our data so the crooks can use it to steal our money, including tax and other government payments, and our identities.

Don't make it easy for the identity thieves. The FTC and IRS offer the following cybersecurity tips that should be followed not just this month, but all 12.

Uncle Sam doesn't email us: The federal government will never call, text, email, or contact you on social media saying you owe money. Neither will they contact you offering to help you get a larger refund or other government payment.

If you get a message with a link from someone claiming to be from the IRS or another government agency, don't click on it. It's a scam. Fake links will take you to bogus websites or email addresses. Often, simply clicking open an electronic door for malware.

If you think you owe money or are still awaiting a refund, contact the IRS directly to resolve the issue. Refund status can be found at Where's My Refund? The IRS has a special web page about EIP payments.

Ignore phone calls and messages, too: Some scammers are old-fashioned. They like to call their potential victims.

If you get a call from someone claiming to be from a government agency and asking for personal or financial information, or for payments of purported overdue tax bills, hang up. Then, as with email and text questions, contact the IRS.

If the caller leaves a message, don't respond. And, again, contact the IRS if you think do have a tax issue that needs attention.

A clear tip-off that the call is fake is when the caller asks (or demands) payment by cash, gift cards, wire transfers, or cryptocurrency.

Don't let generosity snare you: Another popular scam category is where crooks try to take advantage of people's goodwill. As noted in my earlier post, the many recent natural disasters and the coronavirus pandemic have led to more charitable tax donation deduction ploys.

Scams requesting donations for disaster relief efforts are especially common on the phone. Always check out a charity before you donate. And never feel pressured to give immediately. Reputable nonprofits are willing to wait for you to do your donation due diligence.

Report scam attempts: If a government impersonator or any other type of con artist contacts you, let the real feds know.

These reports do make a difference. Reports help Uncle Sam's law enforcement officers investigate, bring law criminal and civil cases, and alert others about what frauds to be on the lookout for so they can protect themselves, their friends, and family.

You can go to the FTC's site to file a report.

The IRS has a variety of scam reporting options on its Tax Scams - How to Report Them page. It covers the steps to take if you encounter email phishing scams, abusive tax scheme promotions, and suspected tax fraud.

Also check out the FTC's OnGuard Online page for more security tips. The IRS has similar info in its publications Security Awareness for Taxpayers and Identity Theft Information for Taxpayers.

The main thing to remember is that scammers' use internet access as their masks, on Halloween and the other 364 days of the year. But if you're careful, they won't be able to spook or spoof you or steal your money or ID.

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