THIEVES and hackers are increasing their efforts to steal money and data from taxpayers this Christmas season by posing as IRS officials in elaborate phishing scams.
In a statement, the IRS said “The combination of the holiday shopping season, the upcoming tax season and the pandemic create additional opportunities for criminals to steal sensitive personal or finance information.”
“This year, fraud scams related to COVID-19, Economic Impact Payments and other tax law changes are common,” the agency warned.
In an effort to keep Americans safe, the IRS shared guidelines for avoiding scams and phishing attempts this holiday season.
Be vigilant about gift card scams
Gift card scams have become increasingly popular because they often make use of hacked or spoofed email addresses and seem legitimate at first.
If you receive an email or text from a friend, loved one, coworker or agency that says you need to buy and send gift cards to a certain address, be suspicious.
And as the IRS points out, remember that no federal agency will ever ask you to pay outstanding dues with a gift card.
“The agency won’t ask for or accept gift cards as payment for a tax bill,” the IRS said in a statement.
Hackers posing as IRS officials send emails requesting gift card purchases.
A scammer might “tell the taxpayer their identity has been stolen and used to open fake bank accounts,” the IRS wrote, and tell the victim that they need to pay a fictitious tax penalty.
After instructing the taxpayer to buy gift cards from stores or restaurants, the scammer asks the taxpayer for the card number and PIN.
But the IRS will never call or email and make these sorts of demands.
“Generally, the IRS will first mail a bill to any taxpayer who owes taxes,” the agency writes.
If you receive a phishing email from someone posing as an IRS official, forward it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Update your anti-virus and enable firewall
The IRS advised computer users to check their security settings and update anti-virus software ahead of the holiday season.
“Make sure anti-virus software for computers has a feature to stop malware, and there is a firewall enabled that can prevent intrusions,” the agency said.
If members of your family are still learning how to use the internet safely, especially teenagers or young children, increase their security settings for them.
And remember, it’s not just your office desktop that needs a security check.
“Don’t forget to use security software for computers, tablets and mobile phones – and keep it updated,” the IRS said.
Double-check the sites you shop on
In the rush of claiming holiday bargains, you may click over to a favorite website to make a purchase, but inadvertently share your private financial information with hackers.
A website that looks like a normal web shop might have severe vulnerabilities that open your credit card information up to hackers.
“Shop at sites where the web address begins with ‘https’ – the ‘s’ is for secure communications over the computer network,” the IRS reminded shoppers.
And in the URL bar, look for a “padlock” symbol that indicates the site is secure.
Don’t make a purchase online if the website isn’t confirmed as secure.
Use two-factor verification and strong passwords
Prior to Christmas and the New Year, update old passwords in favor of stronger ones.
Make sure they’re unique for every website, and consider using a password manager if you balk at the idea of having different passwords for every account.
And enable two-step verification, also known as multi-factor authentication, on any app or website that allows it.
“Many email providers and social media sites offer this feature,” the IRS said.
“It helps prevent thieves from easily hacking accounts.”
Shop online at home, on secure WiFi
Even if you see an expensive item in the store, but find a great bargain online when you look it up on your phone, resist the urge to make the purchase until you’re home.
“Don’t shop on unsecured public Wi-Fi in places like a mall. Remember, thieves can eavesdrop,” the IRS said.
And at home, set a strong WiFi password, no matter how tempting it is to leave your internet unsecured so holiday guests have easy connectivity.
“With more homes connected to the web, secured systems become more important, from wireless printers, wireless door locks to wireless thermometers,” the IRS said.
Those access points are convenient for you, but they’re also accessible to identity thieves.
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