How To Protect Yourself From HMRC & IRS Tax Refund Scams
If you received a call, email or text message from HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC), or the IRS, what would you do? Especially if the email informed you that you were due a tax refund or owed money? Surely either would lead you to take immediate action. But be very careful because chances are… it is a scam.
HMRC Tax Refund Scams
HMRC tax refund scams are, sadly, nothing new but it seems that they are still doing the rounds. It goes like this:
- An unexpected email plops into your inbox. It says it’s from HMRC and looks authentic, complete with official logo and plausible sender/signature. It may come from a (fake!) email address such as [email protected], [email protected] or [email protected].
- The letter may address you as ‘Dear Taxpayer’ but won’t address you by name for an extra air of authenticity, there’s likely to be an official style (but bogus) reference number, and the specific amount of the tax refund that you are promised will be mentioned (e.g. £431.52).
- You will be given a deadline by which you have to claim the refund and, crucially, a link to click on by way of reply. Obviously, don’t be tempted to follow the link.
- If you do click on the link, you’ll be taken to a spoof HMRC website where you will be asked to provide confidential information that could include your bank account or credit card details; your name, address, date of birth and National Insurance number; your passwords and your mother’s maiden name.
These scam emails can arrive at any time, but it seems that the fraudsters are particularly active during two key times in the year: January (in the run-up to the annual Self-Assessment Tax Return deadline) and July (when tax credit applications are being renewed).
It goes without saying that anyone replying to these phishing emails is putting their bank accounts and personal identities at risk of being stolen or sold on to other organised criminal gangs. The consequences really don’t bear thinking about.
HMRC are, of course, fully aware of phishing attacks on their customers and are having to deal with attempted fraud on a vast scale. Between April 2015 and March 2016, HMRC blocked 8 million malicious emails that were destined for UK taxpayers; they responded to over 250,000 phishing emails and took down almost 14,000 spoof websites. As you can see, it’s a huge problem.
How do HMRC really communicate?
So, how can you tell if an email is genuine or not? To start with, here are some useful government information to help you spot a phishing scam.
HMRC’s official line is that ‘HMRC will never notify you of a tax rebate, offer you repayment, or ask you to disclose personal or financial details by email or by text, and we recommend that if you cannot verify the identity of a caller that you do not speak to them.’
HMRC’s head of digital security adds, ‘HMRC never contacts customers who are due a tax refund via email – we always send a letter through the post.’ Legitimate HMRC tax rebate forms (P800s) will contain a payment order and will never ask for card details.
How can you protect yourself?
If you receive a scam email claiming to be from HMRC, there are several things you should (and shouldn’t!) do.
- Familiarise yourself with official advice given by HMRC on phishing, scams and internet security here, which includes useful examples of fake emails you may come across. S/he who is well prepared has half won the battle, goes the proverb.
- Do not click on websites or links that are contained in suspicious emails. Don’t open attachments or download any files or documents either. If in doubt, call HMRC direct about any income tax enquiry, by using the official telephone numbers here.
- Forward all suspicious looking emails to HMRC’s dedicated security email address [email protected] for investigation, then make sure you permanently delete it from your inbox.
- If you have replied to a fake email and you think your personal data may be compromised, contact HMRC at [email protected] immediately.
- If you think you may have been the victim of an email scam, also report the incident to the affected organisation (your bank, credit card company, internet retailer etc) without delay.
In our advanced digital era, the fight against online fraud and identity theft is, unfortunately, an ongoing battle, so it pays to be on your guard at all times.
As fraudsters are thinking up ever more devious ways to gain unlawful access to our personal and financial data, HMRC scams involving other means of communication are now being discovered. These include
Text Messages: You may receive a text message claiming to be from HMRC informing you of a tax rebate, or of an outstanding debt. You will be asked call the bogus number back as soon as possible to deal with the issue, or given a link to direct you to a spoof website.
Spoof Calls: Using a fake telephone number, fraudsters may be cold calling you about an outstanding HMRC tax debt that requires immediate payment over the phone.
Voicemails: Fraudsters may leave an automated message to inform you of unpaid tax owed to HMRC, and providing a bogus number to call. When you call back, you are threatened with police arrest unless the debt is paid straight away.
Criminals get more and more creative every day so you have to stay alert. If you receive a call, email or text message saying you are entitled to money or owe money, and you are suspicious, hang up and dial the company directly to find out if it is legitimate. Chances are you will be VERY glad you did.
Written by Dakota Murphey, as part of a project for Best VPN.