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Commentary: Tax tips for consumers heading into the filing deadline

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Ahead of the April 15 deadline to file income-tax returns, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra last week announced tips to encourage safe tax filing and preparation and prevent tax-related identity theft. Each year, millions of California taxpayers file their taxes, and many look forward to receiving tax refunds. Unfortunately, tax season also draws scam artists who prey on individuals who may need help with filing their taxes. This alert explains some of the most common tax-season scams and provides Californians with resources to find reputable tax help.

“During tax season, hardworking Californians are more vulnerable to identity theft and other scams,” Becerra said. “Our website offers consumers a wealth of information to help make filing taxes a little easier and safer. I encourage consumers to take the time to review these and other tips and the resources available on our site at oag.ca.gov.”

Tax-fraud scams
Tax-related scams take on various forms and show up every year, especially around tax season. The most common tax-related scams include:

• Fake IRS phone calls demanding money– Scammers call consumers claiming to be from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) or the California Franchise Tax Board (FTB) and demand the consumer pay them money. The scammers will often use harassment and high-pressure tactics, threatening the consumer with arrest, deportation or the loss of the consumer’s driver license if they do not receive payment, often by money wire or prepaid debit cards. The scammer may even know information, such as the consumer’s Social Security number or fake the caller ID to make it appear as though the call is coming from the IRS, FTB, police or the Department of Motor Vehicles.

• Fake IRS emails– Scammers send out “phishing” emails that look like they are from the IRS or FTB and claim that consumers either owe money or are due a refund. They will include links to official-looking websites and ask for money or personal information that will allow the scammers to steal the taxpayers’ identities.

• Stolen refunds– Identity thieves use stolen personal information to file false tax returns under someone else’s name to steal refunds. Scammers usually file early in the tax season and consumers may not learn about the theft until they try to file their taxes.

How to protect yourself from tax-fraud scams
Becerra offers many tips for consumers to protect themselves from tax-fraud scams, including:

• Hang up the phone!– While in some cases the IRS or FTB may call a person who owes taxes, they only do so after they have tried to contact the consumer by mail. They do not threaten jail time or seek payment over the phone or through a wire transfer. Consumers should not make any payments and contact the agency directly by looking up their information online. Calls impersonating the IRS should be reported to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA). Those impersonating the FTB should be reported at bit.ly/2ci27Ol.

• Do NOT open the email– Never open an email or text message that says it is from the IRS or the FTB. The IRS and FTB will not use email, text message or social media as the first way of getting in touch to request personal or financial information or to send notice regarding audits or refunds. Replying to the email, opening attachments or clicking on links may enable scammers to collect personal information or infect a computer with viruses or other malware. Phishing emails should be reported to [email protected]
Use a strong password– When preparing a tax return for electronic filing, consumers should use a unique strong password for each online filing account. A strong password is eight or more characters, including letters, numbers and symbols.

• Think beyond the password– For greater security, consumers can request an Identity Protection PIN (IP PIN) for e-filing with the IRS. A new PIN is provided each year by the IRS.

• Use two-step authentication– Consumers should check on the availability of two-step authentication to protect tax-filing accounts (and other online accounts containing sensitive information, such as your email and social-media accounts). Two-step authentication offers stronger protection than just a password and username. The process (also called login approval or multi-factor authentication) adds a second factor, such as a one-time use code that is sent to the consumer by email, phone or text to access the account.

• Report scams– Both the IRS and the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration maintain informative websites with detailed information on the latest scams. Consumers can also report suspected tax scams to the Office of the Attorney General. To submit a complaint, visit oag.ca.gov/complaint or call (800) 852-5225.

Tax preparation
Many consumers use services to prepare tax returns. Becerra urges consumers to find out whether they qualify for free tax help and use resources to check that their tax preparer is reputable and qualified to provide the service.

• VITA– The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program provides free tax help to people who make $54,000 or less annually, persons with disabilities and people who do not understand English well. The Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) program offers free tax help for all taxpayers, particularly those over 60, specializing in questions about pensions and retirement-related issues. More information can be found on the IRS website at irs.gov.

• Find a reputable tax preparer– In California, anyone who prepares tax returns for a fee must be either an attorney, a certified public accountant (CPA), an IRS-enrolled agent or register with the state as a tax preparer. To confirm whether a tax preparer is registered with the IRS, visit bit.ly/2nvL91Y.

• Complaints against tax preparers– Complaints may be filed with the IRS at bit.ly/2z6qhHk.

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Commentary: Tax tips for consumers heading into the filing deadline