What could be worse for an owner-operator than getting unsolicited mail from the Internal Revenue Service? Getting unsolicited e-mail from crooks posing as the IRS.
“I just got one yesterday from the IRS saying I had a $93 refund and they wanted more information,” says Russell Fullingim, who runs Truckers Financial Service in Corning, Calif., and moderates the Truck.Net tax discussion group.
The e-mail requested credit card numbers and other financial data. “It really looked like an official IRS letter, but I know for a fact the IRS doesn’t request information like that.”
Phony refund offers are the most common “phishing” bait using the IRS name. Especially wary should be the many owner-operators expecting a genuine IRS check this time of year. About 40 percent of clients at ATBS, the largest owner-operator financial services firm, get a tax refund, says ATBS accountant Mark Miller.
A common come-on to small businesses is to tell the recipient “a complaint has been lodged against them, and the IRS will mediate with the complainer, but they need more information,” says Michelle Lamishaw, an IRS spokeswoman. The real IRS does not mediate complaints.
“Recently I’ve seen an e-mail that told somebody they were being audited, and they needed to furnish the IRS with personal information,” she says.
An audit, a rare but scary possibility for the self-employed, hits closer to home for owner-operators. Because their tax returns often list hundreds of expenses, and their revenue statements don’t always square with forms filed by carriers, the specter of an audit is never far away.
The IRS says that 4 percent of returns filed by the self-employed with at last $100,000 in revenue get flagged, though not all end up in full-blown audits. In most owner-operator cases involving an accountant, the questions get resolved, and there is no hassle beyond the process itself.
Regardless of what an e-mail says, know that the IRS does business by postal mail, not “unsecured lines” such as e-mail, Lamishaw says. Follow-up contact, however, such as arranging a meeting, may be done by telephone.
“The bottom line is if somebody is asking for personal and financial information, like your Social Security number, bank account numbers and credit card numbers, just automatically be suspicious,” she says.
Too good to be true
The IRS advises recipients of suspicious e-mails not to open their attachments or click on their links. These are some of the common e-mail scams from IRS impostors that the real IRS has noted within the past 10 months:
- A tax refund offer claims to come from the Taxpayer Advocate Service, a genuine IRS department. It links to a fake IRS site.
- A solicitation asks for charitable donations to victims of California wildfires. It links to a fake website that looks similar to the actual IRS site.
- Another refund e-mail links to a site that looks like the legitimate “Where’s My Refund” interactive page on the real IRS site. However, this “Get Your Tax Refund!” site asks for credit card numbers.
- Recipients are offered $80 to fill out an IRS customer satisfaction survey.
- A “Tax avoidance investigation” e-mail claims to come from the IRS Fraud Department.
What’s for real
- You can securely check the status of your refund. Go to www.irs.gov and enter “where’s my refund” in the search box.
- All IRS web functions begin with www.irs.gov. Any other website address is phony.
- The IRS already knows your Social Security number and will never ask for the kinds of information, such as credit card numbers, typically sought by identity thieves.
- To report fraudulent IRS e-mail, forward it to: firstname.lastname@example.org.