• Cybersecurity

Tax Season Phishing: How to Identify and Avoid Common Scams

Ah, tax season. That annual dance with deadlines, deductions, and, unfortunately, scammers lurking in the shadows. These crafty criminals see the pressure and financial vulnerability of this time as prime bait for phishing scams, aiming to steal your personal information and hard-earned refund. But fear not, tax warriors! By equipping yourself with knowledge and vigilance, you can avoid these digital fishing hooks and navigate the season with confidence. 

What is phishing? 

Phishing is a type of scam where attackers try to trick you into giving them your personal information, such as your Social Security number, bank account number, or credit card number. They do this by sending you emails, texts, or even phone calls that appear to be from legitimate organizations, such as the IRS. 

How to identify common tax season phishing scams 

There are a few red flags that can help you identify a phishing scam: 

The sender’s email address or phone number doesn’t look legitimate. The IRS will never contact you by email or text message to ask for personal information. 

The message is urgent or threatening. Scammers often try to scare you into giving them your information by saying that you’re in trouble with the IRS or that your refund is being held up. 

The message contains typos or grammatical errors. Legitimate organizations typically have professional-looking communications. 

The message asks you to click on a link or open an attachment. Don’t click on any links or open any attachments in a suspicious email or text message. 

Here are some specific examples of common tax season phishing scams: 

Now, let’s get specific. Here are some of the most prevalent tax season phishing scams to watch out for, including insights from Capital One’s resource and additional threats to be aware of: 

The “recalculated refund” scam: You receive an email or text message saying that your tax refund has been recalculated and that you’re due more money. The message will ask you to click on a link to verify your information. 

The “identity theft” scam: You receive an email or text message saying that your identity has been stolen and that you need to take immediate action to protect yourself. The message will ask you to click on a link to verify your information. 

The “missing tax form” scam: You receive an email or text message saying that you’re missing a tax form and that you need to submit it immediately. The message will ask you to click on a link to submit the form. 

The Phone Phishing Predator: A “friendly” agent claiming to be from the IRS calls, demanding immediate payment for alleged tax debts or threatening legal action. Hang up! The IRS will never initiate contact this way. Capital One confirms, “the IRS won’t threaten you with arrest or call you out of the blue to demand money.” 

The Desperate Plea of the Fake Charity: During tax season, scam charities may ramp up their efforts, posing as legitimate organizations and using emotional appeals to pressure you into donating quickly. Be wary of unsolicited pleas, especially those promising tax deductions. Always research any charity thoroughly before donating and never give out personal information or financial details in response to unsolicited requests. 

The Ghost Tax Preparer: Beware of “tax preparers” who offer unrealistically high refunds or fast turnaround times. They may file inaccurate returns, steal your identity, or leave you on the hook for penalties and interest. Always choose a reputable and professional tax preparer, preferably one with an IRS Preparer Tax Identification Number (PTIN). 

The Offer in Compromise Scam: Scammers may claim they can get your tax debt significantly reduced through an Offer in Compromise (OIC) program, even if you’re not eligible. The IRS has a specific process for applying for an OIC, and it’s best to do it directly through them or a reputable tax professional. 

The “Pay Your Taxes with Gift Cards” Trap: The IRS will never ask you to pay your taxes with gift cards. This is a clear scam, and any message suggesting it should be ignored. 

How to avoid tax season phishing scams 

Scammers often employ urgency tactics to pressure you into making rash decisions. Watch out for phrases like “immediate action required,” “limited-time offer,” or “your account will be closed.” Trust your gut instinct and remember, legitimate communications are rarely urgent or threatening.  

Here are a few tips to help you avoid tax season phishing scams: 

Link Skepticism: Hover over any link before clicking. A suspicious URL or domain name should ring alarm bells. 

Attachment Aversion: Avoid opening attachments, especially in unsolicited emails. They could contain malware that steals your information. 

Email Eagle Eye: Scrutinize the sender’s address and message for typos, grammatical errors, or unprofessional language. The IRS communicates professionally. 

Urgency Unmasking: Don’t fall for threats or promises of quick refunds. Legitimate communications are calm and professional. 

Double-Check the Source: If unsure, contact the organization directly through their official website or phone number, not the information provided in the suspicious message. 

Password Padawan: Use strong, unique passwords for all online accounts and enable two-factor authentication for added security. 

Software Savvy: Keep your operating system, web browser, and antivirus software updated to patch vulnerabilities. 

Tax Tech Champion: File your taxes electronically through official IRS channels to minimize the risk of paper trail interception. 

Social Media Security: Be mindful of what information you share publicly on social media. Scammers can gather details to personalize their phishing attempts. 

Remember, if something feels fishy, it probably is. Trust your gut instinct and err on the side of caution. 

If You Suspect a Scam: Steps for Recovery 

If you suspect you’ve been phished, take immediate action: 

Report the scam: Inform the IRS and the Federal Trade Commission. This helps authorities track and dismantle these operations. 

Freeze your credit: Contact credit bureaus to prevent unauthorized access to your financial accounts. 

Change your passwords: Update passwords for all potentially compromised accounts and use strong, unique ones. 

Monitor your accounts: Closely monitor your bank statements and credit reports for suspicious activity. 


Be careful about what information you share on social media. Scammers can use the information you share on social media to target you with phishing scams. 

Be wary of unsolicited phone calls. Scammers often call people and pretend to be from the IRS or another legitimate organization. 

If you think you’ve been the victim of a phishing scam, report it to the IRS and the Federal Trade Commission. 

By following these tips, you can help protect yourself from tax season phishing scams. 

Remember, if you’re ever unsure whether something is a scam, it’s always best to err on the side of caution and not give out any personal information.