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How to avoid tax scams in the countdown to April 15

Here are some more reasons to suffer a bit of tax phobia ‘ unless you follow the experts’ advice.

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — As tax day draws near, millions of Americans are sweating over their W-2 and 1099 forms and hoping against hope that everything checks out and their tax returns are processed without any headaches or, heaven forbid, a call or letter from the IRS to explain some questionable figures.

Psychologists have a term for the anxiety that creeps up on Americans every April – they call it “tax phobia,” and it ranks right up there with a fear of snakes, spiders and scary spaces on the list of experiences U.S. adults would prefer to avoid.

READ: Five tips you may be forgetting in your tax rush

If you are indeed, tax phobic, you may want to sit down.

Why? Because there’s yet another tax-related issue to fret about: tax scams.

In the IRS’ list of “Dirty Dozen” tax scams for 2013 released March 26, the tax agency warns consumers to watch out for a “wide range of schemes, especially as April 15 draws closer, and the tax return process grows more frenzied."

"This tax season, the IRS has stepped up its efforts to protect taxpayers from a wide range of schemes, including moving aggressively to combat identity theft and refund fraud," says IRS Acting Commissioner Steven T. Miller. "The Dirty Dozen list shows that scams come in many forms during filing season. Don't let a scam artist steal from you or talk you into doing something you will regret later."

Topping the list is identity theft, in which someone steals your name and Social Security to file a fraudulent tax return and claim a refund. The agency also warns about “phishing,” in which con artists reach out to you via unsolicited emails to “draw out” personal information they can use to commit identity theft.

The IRS says it’s taking aggressive steps to thwart tax-related identity theft. Private security protection groups are getting into the game too.

Consider the Center for Internet Security, an East Greenbush, N.Y., nonprofit that just released a booklet called Protect Yourself From Tax Scams .

In it, the CIS offers some ready-to-go tips to thwart scam artists as tax deadline day beckons. By and large it’s all about heightened awareness and a good dose of due diligence.

“Vigilance about our online activities is required every day, but it is especially important during this time of year,” says William Pelgrin, president and CEO at CIS. “By taking a few basic precautions, users can minimize their risks of becoming a victim.”

Here is what the CIS advises in protecting your identity during tax season:

Ignore IRS emails. According to the CIS, the IRS has a policy of not using email or social media tools to request personal or financial information. If you get an email saying it's from the IRS, redirect it to the agency at [email protected]

No links. If you do happen to open an email from someone purporting to be from the IRS, don’t open any links or attachments. They’re a gateway for identity thieves to access your computer files and data.

Be vigilant about the tax sites you visit. The CIS says that caution is the watchword when seeking out things such as tax forms and advice online. “Do not visit a site by clicking on a link sent in an email, found on someone's blog or on an advertisement,” the group says. “The website you land on may look just like the real site, but it may be a well-crafted fake.”

Careful on the Wi-Fi. As the CIS points out, Wi-Fi hotspots are more about convenience than security. Watch out for eavesdropping by hackers, the group advises.

“Lock down your PC or laptop — Build a wall around your online data. “Make sure your computer has the proper security controls, including up-to-date anti-virus and anti-spyware software and a firewall,” the CIS says.

Don’t take tax scams for granted, especially over the next week or so.

Because one thing is for sure: Identity thieves aren’t taking you for granted, and they’re ready to strike at the first sign of vulnerability.


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