Phishers & Scammers & Taxes, Oh My!
Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.
— Benjamin Franklin
It’s that time of year — tax season. Regardless of whether you owe or are expecting a refund, there is one thing we all should be looking out for: people who want to take your money. This is a good time of year to remember one of the least technical, but certainly one of the most dangerous aspects of our industry, social engineering.
Whether by email through a phishing scheme or via telephone and fear, there is a possibility that you will be contacted in an attempt to access your IRS records, or pushed to send money to an unauthorized, but reputable sounding party.
Here are just some of the potential social engineering scams you might see:
A tax company appears to send you an email about your filing.
You know the big brands for tax preparation. Whether you go around the Block, visit the Statue of Liberty, or give a look at President Jackson, you’ve probably seen ads and seasonal kiosks in places you regularly visit. Scammers are aware of these companies as well, and will use these names to their advantage. Tax email scams often ask for clarification on your filing or other targeted messages. If you receive one of these messages, you can look for signs of it being false. If the greeting is impersonal, such as “Dear Customer,” that is a red flag that the message is not from the tax company. Other obvious signs are misspellings and improper grammar. The final place to check is the link itself. While it may be written in the email as a link that looks legitimate or is hidden using hyperlink text, you can hold your mouse over the link without clicking and see the full URL.
If you receive one of these emails, the best thing you can do is delete the email. However, if you are unsure and you think that it may be legitimate, do not click the link from the email, but go to the website itself and log into your account to determine if the correspondence was legitimate. You can find more information about protecting yourself from these kinds of emails in this NTT Security blog about phishing and spear phishing emails.
You are called about paying a tax or verifying your information.
One thing to remember is that the IRS does not ever make direct phone calls. They will send a letter to you first, and you can contact them with the information in the letter. Sometimes the scammers will ask for an alternative means of payment, such as a gift card. This will never happen if the IRS is trying to contact you. If you receive a phone call from a company that claims to be a part of the IRS or other collection agency working for them, hang up immediately. You can call the number back if available, or search the internet for the number to determine its legitimacy.
Human resources within your organization is targeted.
A common spear phishing attack during tax season targets your organization’s human resources department. An attacker may attempt to contact HR requesting W-2s and other important information such as social security numbers while posing as another employee within the company, often spoofing an executive’s account. To avoid this scam, HR should inspect any suspicious email headers to determine if the email is coming from a legitimate email within your organization, or can just call the individual to see if he or she actually requested the information.
Ensuring that you file with a reputable company will help prevent becoming a victim to these types of attacks. The IRS has lists of places to file online or to locate a local authorized IRS e-file provider.
Ben Franklin defined the two certainties as death and taxes, and as our blogger Stuart Reed asked back in November, “is a ‘cyber attack’ becoming the third certainty?” If there is money to be made, then there is a certainty that it will happen, even if it doesn’t happen to you. You can report potential scams to the IRS at email@example.com or 800-366-4484.
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