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How to avoid phishing and identity theft during tax season

Individuals 03.15.2019 3 MIN READ

Learn about phishing, filing fraudulent tax returns with your stolen identity and signs your information may have been compromised.


What is phishing?

The Federal Trade Commission defines phishing as “…when a scammer uses fraudulent communications to get you to share valuable personal information—such as account numbers, Social Security numbers, logins and passwords. They can also install malware programs through fake emails.”1

During tax season, the IRS reports seeing a large spike in the number of phishing and malware (software that can weaken your computer’s security) incidents. Thieves are continuously evolving their tactics to try to confuse taxpayers during filing season. Beyond taxpayers, thieves are also targeting schools and tax, payroll and human resources professionals.

We’ll examine some prevalent phishing schemes and signs that your personal information may have been compromised and used in a tax fraud scheme. Learn more about keeping your personal data safe and secure.

In email schemes, thieves may pose as a person or organization that the taxpayer recognizes and trusts. Or they might hack into an email account and send mass emails under another person’s name. They might pose as a bank, credit card company, a software provider or government agency. These scammers might even create fake websites that look legitimate, hoping to fool people into logging in and thereby learning their passwords.

"These email schemes continue to evolve and can fool even the most cautious person. Email messages can look like they come from the IRS or others in the tax community,” says IRS Commissioner John Koskinen. “Taxpayers should avoid opening surprise emails or clicking on web links claiming to be from the IRS. Don’t be fooled by unexpected emails about big refunds, tax bills or requesting personal information. That’s not how the IRS communicates with taxpayers.”2


How do I know if I've been targeted?

The IRS publishes Tax Tips throughout the year—both in print and digital—covering a wide range of tax topics. The following is adapted from one of their articles and lists the most common signs of identity theft.3

Signs that you may be a victim of tax-related identity theft include:

  1. Your electronic tax return is rejected and you receive a message that your Social Security number (SSN) has been used on a return that has been filed. Check to be sure you haven’t transposed any of the numbers of your 9-digit SSN number on your return. Then make sure that none of your dependents filed a tax return and claimed themselves. If everything checks out and you still can’t successfully e-file due to a duplicate SSN, you may be a victim of identity theft.
  2. You receive a letter from the IRS requesting that you verify whether you’ve sent a tax return with your name and SSN. The IRS sets suspicious returns aside and sends the associated taxpayers letters to verify them.
  3. You receive income information from an employer unknown to you. This is most likely employment-related identity theft from someone seeking documentation to work.
  4. You receive a refund that you didn’t request. It may be a paper refund check that the thief intended to have sent elsewhere. 
  5. You receive a tax transcript in the mail that you didn’t request. Thieves will sometimes test the validity of the personal data they have stolen, or they may attempt to use your data to steal even more information. If you receive a tax transcript and you didn’t request it, be aware that it may be identity theft. 
  6. You receive a pre-paid debit card in the mail that you didn’t request. Thieves will sometimes use your name and address to create an account for a reloadable prepaid debit card that they use for various schemes, including tax-related identity theft. 

If you’ve suffered identity theft involving taxes, contact the IRS immediately and report your situation. More information about tax-related identity theft can be found at Identity Protection: Prevention, Detection and Victim Assistance as well as the Taxpayer Guide to Identity Theft – all on

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Phishing, July 2017, Federal Trade Commission Consumer Information,

2Phishing Schemes Lead the IRS “Dirty Dozen” List of Tax Scams for 2017; Remain Tax-Time Threat, February 1, 2017, Internal Revenue Service,

3RS, states, industry urge taxpayers to learn signs of identity theft, January 3, 2017, IRS Taxes. Security. Together. Tax Tip Number 11, Internal Revenue Service,

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