May 2012

IRS Email or Internet Scam: How Can You Tell the Difference?


by Kevin M. O’Brien

Another tax season has come and gone, but it’s never too early to start preparing for next year. As we prepare our taxes, Internet scam artists are looking to take their cut. Many scams come in the form of emails, tweets and text messages which are commonly referred to as “phishing.” Scammers offer enticements to their victims in the form of promises of refunds, or try to intimidate recipients by claiming that they have under-reported their income. Regardless of the method, the messages are becoming increasingly sophisticated and more convincing to the receiver through the use of the name and official logo of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) or U.S. Department of the Treasury.

Geared towards identity theft, fraudulent emails often encourage recipients to click on a link to a fake website (oftentimes with an address that may appear official or may be very close to the taxing entity’s real address) or to fill out an attachment. They are instructed to provide personal information, such as passwords, Social Security numbers, bank account or credit card information. Scam victims are told they must provide this to receive their refund or to avoid paying a tax penalty. The links and attachments are frequently a channel used to transmit viruses or malware to the victim’s computer, uncovering passwords and other sensitive personal information.

To avoid becoming a victim of such “phishing” and Internet fraud, you should know that the IRS never sends unsolicited emails to taxpayers. Nor would the IRS ever request sensitive financial and personal information, including a taxpayer’s PIN or password, via an email. Here are a few steps to take to protect one against such Internet scams:

  • Never open an attachment from the IRS or any unknown sender.
  • Do not click on links from the IRS or unknown senders.
  • Research the background of any company that requests your personal or financial information
  • Never give your Social Security number to the IRS via an email or online to any unknown source.
  • Check out the FBI website,, to learn if the email you received is a currently circulating cyber scam.
  • Click on “Where’s My Refund?” at to determine if you really are getting a refund rather than clicking on an email link.
  • Forward any suspicious email or website address to; then delete the email.

The IRS and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) continually post details of cyber scam alerts as well as telephone, fax, and direct mail scams. If you or someone you know has been sent an offer that just sounds “too good to be true,” or if you are being intimidated to send sensitive personal information to an unknown source, contact your local authorities or the FBI immediately.

With all this information in mind, you can happily await the return of the interest-free loan that you gave to the government in the form of your refund—safe from the risk of losing it to scammers!

Kevin M. O'Brien, CFP®, an Accredited Investment Fiduciary® (AIF®), and founder and president of PEAK Financial Services, Inc. ( He is a Certified Financial Planner and a Chartered Advisor to Philanthropy.