The IRS recently reported that email-based tax scams, i.e. phishing or malware, increased by over 400 percent last year.

A “phishing” attack is when you receive an imitation email from someone posing as a trusted institution or person that tries to either ask you for personal information directly or tries to get you to visit a website that will ask you for personal information or passwords. Phishing emails and websites can even appear to have official logos and imitations of official login screens in order to dupe visitors into turning over personal information. Typically, phishing scams have had obvious flaws such as odd graphics or poorly phrased text that increase the suspicions of discerning individuals, but in recent months scammers have become increasingly more sophisticated to the point it can be difficult for even experts to tell the difference between scam sites and the real ones.

In terms of tax-specific phishing scams, emails or websites will either ask for Social Security numbers, copies of old tax returns, or other identifying information. Scammers with that information could then file a tax return in your name and steal any refund that you may be owed.

Keep in mind: the IRS never initiates communication via email. The IRS also never initiates contact via a phone call. Anyone cold-calling or unexpectedly emailing you claiming to be from the IRS is trying to scam you.

A malware attack is a slightly different approach. In a malware attack, an email will try to get you to open an email attachment or to visit a website with infected software. The email attachment or website will then install a malicious program on your computer. The malicious program then could try to either search your computer for personal information or start stealing login and password information from sites you normally visit.

Ways to Stay Safe

To protect yourself from phishing attacks, be wary of unexpected emails purporting to be from trusted sources. Also, avoid clicking on links in emails that purport to go to financial institutions. If in doubt, exit out of your email program or website and then enter in your financial institution’s web address yourself in a new window or browser tab.

To prevent malware attacks, keep your computer updated with the latest security releases. Be sure to regularly check Windows Update on Windows PCs or the Mac App Store on Apple computers for new updates. If you use third-party antivirus programs be sure to keep those programs regularly updated. While security updates can prevent many malware programs, computer users should still avoid opening suspicious email attachments. If in doubt, either do not click on the attachment or, preferably, delete the email altogether.

To help develop an estate plan that protects you and your family from unnecessary expenses, please call Martha C. Brown & Associates at (314) 962-0186.