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Phishing schemes are angling for your tax refund

Tax season is here, and with it comes the usual increase in fraudsters pretending to be you so they can make off with your refund.

Especially prevalent are phishing schemes – the IRS in 2018 recorded a 60 percent increase with “a surge of new, sophisticated email phishing scams that seek to steal money or tax information,” the agency said. Once the thieves have such information, they can steal your identity and your tax refund.

At the state level, the New Mexico Taxation and Revenue Department is braced for fraudulent and questionable returns, Secretary-designate Stephanie Schardin-Clarke said in an email.

The department reviews the more than 1 million returns it gets for “errors and compliance,” she said. Its “systemic anti-fraud efforts” flag from 3 to 7 percent of those because they need more review or supporting information. The agency’s Questionable Review Unit took a closer look at between 50,000 and 60,000 returns last year and of those, identified more than 100 as fraudulent.

Schardin-Clarke said in the email the agency will process returns this year “on a similar timeline to recent years.” In past years, the state’s tax collectors have warned there might be delays in sending out checks because of the extra security measures. New Mexico is part of an exchange with other states through the IRS’ Security Summit in which members share information about ongoing scams and how to uncover them.

As for how to protect yourself, one simple measure is to file early. That way you will get your return before any fraudster seeking to impersonate you.

Most important, of course, is to protect your identity – all year long because IRS scams don’t happen just during tax season. The most common way cybercriminals steal “money, bank account information, passwords, credit cards or Social Security numbers is to simply ask for them,” the IRS says.

Too many people fall victim and hand over their information voluntarily, the agency says. Often, they are responding to phishing emails that appear to come from a business colleague, friend, relative or supposed government agency. When victims click on an embedded link, they might be taken to a fake website that looks real and seeks to gain personal information. Other versions contain PDF attachments that may download malware or viruses.

One recent malware campaign used such subject lines as “IRS Important Notice,” or “IRS Taxpayer Notice,” the agency said.

Both the IRS and the state are warning of a particular phishing scam that has targeted businesses in an effort to collect W-2 information. In this one, the scammer sends an email to payroll or someone else in charge of records, pretending to be a company executive and seeking personal information.

Here’s what to do:

• Be vigilant. Never open a link or attachment from an unknown or suspicious source, but even if it’s from a known source, approach with caution.

• Remember that the IRS doesn’t initiate spontaneous contact with taxpayers by email or text to request personal or financial information. It also does not call on the phone and threaten lawsuits or arrest.

• Phishing schemes thrive on people opening the message and clicking on hyperlinks. When in doubt, don’t use hyperlinks and go directly to the source’s main web page. Remember, no legitimate business or organization will ask for sensitive financial information via email.

Ellen Marks is assistant business editor at the Albuquerque Journal. Contact her at or 505-823-3842 if you are aware of what sounds like a scam. To report a scam to law enforcement, contact the New Mexico Consumer Protection Division toll-free at 1-844-255-9210​.