By Diego Abeloos
The Los Altos Police Department, after receiving several reports of tax-related scams, is warning residents to remain vigilant as this year’s tax deadline approaches.
The local alert comes on the heels of an email phishing warning by the IRS issued in late March. According to the IRS, scammers posing as taxpayer advocates have been contacting victims by email claiming errors in their tax document processing. The email advises victims to click links that connect them to web pages that request personal information for the sake of resolution assistance.
Los Altos Police Capt. Andy Galea said the department has averaged two to three reports per month this year from residents who were either victims or near-victims through a similar tactic: scammers calling and identifying themselves as IRS agents.
In most of the cases, the perpetrators claim that the victims owe unpaid taxes and ask them to submit the payment via a prepaid debit card, said Los Altos Police Sgt. Mark Bautista. He added that the scam is fairly common and uses “fear and urgency” to compel victims to follow along.
“(The scammers) tell them they owe back taxes and late fees, and if they don’t pay, there will be penalties,” he said. “That’s a scam that’s more prevalent the past couple of years, and this is not necessarily restricted to tax season either.”
Another common tax-scam tactic, according to police, involves the theft of the victim’s identity. Galea noted a local case in which a female resident submitted her annual taxes, only to be informed by the IRS that someone already filed her tax return. She later learned that a scammer assumed her identity – stealing personal information such as her Social Security number as well as her tax refund.
In recent years, this scam has gained steam and become more difficult to investigate as tax-preparer services offer instant tax refunds issued on prepaid debit cards, in lieu of more traditional methods like receiving a refund check in the mail. Scammers using both ploys typically live across state lines or even in another country, making matters increasingly complicated from an investigative standpoint, Bautista added.
“This (type of activity) is more common this time of year because people know there will be tax returns coming,” he said. “Most often the suspect is operating this scam from a faraway location – it’s an investigative paper trail.”
Bautista noted that residents contacted by someone posing as a scammer can take the cautious step of asking the caller for his or her name and contact information and then personally contact the IRS to verify his or her identity. When in doubt, contact local authorities for assistance, he added.
“I would say feel free to report any suspicious incidents. … It’s not really the way paying bills works,” Bautista said.
IRS spokesman Raphael Tulino, meanwhile, said taxpayers can learn more about pervasive scams – dubbed the “Dirty Dozen” – through the organization’s website. Tulino, who noted that recent immigrants to the U.S. have been particularly targeted, said the IRS never seeks credit card account or other personal information over the phone.
“Under no circumstance is the IRS going to call you out of the blue and demand that you pay taxes owed on a prepaid debit card or through a wire transfer,” he said.
For more information, visit irs.gov.