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Tax Refund Thefts On The Rise

You’re not the only one waiting for your tax refund. Scammers are looking for it too. In fact, every year there are more and more scams designed to steal tax refunds.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) says these kinds of thefts have increased substantially in the last few years. Between 2010 and 2012, the number of investigations opened by the IRS grew from 224 to 898, according to the latest figures.

Find out more about tax refund scams, how to protect yourself from identity theft and what to do if you are a victim.

It All Starts with Identity Theft

Tax refund thefts usually begin when someone steals your personal information, such as your Social Security number. This is called identity theft.

To get your information, scammers use a technique called phishing, where a scammer tries to fool you into revealing your personal data.

This is how it works:

  • They send you fake e-mail messages or websites pretending to be someone they’re not, such as the IRS or the Social Security Administration.
  • They ask you to provide your personal or financial information such as your Social Security number or your credit card numbers.

Once they have the information they need, they file your taxes in your name and wait until they get your refund.

How to Protect Yourself

This is what you can do to protect yourself from this scam:

  • The IRS does not initiate contact via e-mail with issues regarding your tax return.
  • Be careful with websites that pretend to be the IRS. The official IRS website is http://www.irs.gov/
  • If somebody calls you and says they are an employee of the IRS, take down their employee identification number and call 1-800-829-1040 to make sure the call is legitimate.
  • Do not provide your Social Security number or other personal information to anybody you consider suspicious.

What to Do If You Are a Victim

Many taxpayers find out they’ve are victims of tax refund scams when they get a letter from the IRS saying their taxes have been filed twice. If you get such a letter, contact the IRS immediately to try to correct the situation.

You can find out the status of your tax return by visiting the official IRS website. You will be asked to provide personal information such as your Social Security number and the amount of your expected tax return.

If you would like assistance or would like to report identity theft, contact the IRS or call 1-800-908-4490.

Don’t Get Ripped Off by Fraudulent Health Products

Scammers have been selling fake health products for hundreds of years. They will promise everything from weight loss to a cure for cancer in exchange for your money. These scams aren’t only a waste of money, they can be dangerous. Unproven medical treatments can be damaging to your health and even deadly.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) offers these 6 tips to spot fake health products:

  • One product does it all. Be suspicious of products that claim to cure a wide range of diseases. A New York firm claimed its products marketed as dietary supplements could treat or cure senile dementia, brain atrophy, atherosclerosis, kidney dysfunction, gangrene, depression, osteoarthritis, dysuria, and lung, cervical and prostate cancer. In October 2012, at FDA’s request, U.S. marshals seized these products.
  • Personal testimonials. Success stories, such as, “It cured my diabetes” or “My tumors are gone,” are easy to make up and are not a substitute for scientific evidence.
  • Quick fixes. Few diseases or conditions can be treated quickly, even with legitimate products. Beware of language such as, “Lose 30 pounds in 30 days” or “eliminates skin cancer in days.”
  • “All natural.” Some plants found in nature (such as poisonous mushrooms) can kill when consumed. Moreover, FDA has found numerous products promoted as “all natural” but that contain hidden and dangerously high doses of prescription drug ingredients or even untested active artificial ingredients.
  • “Miracle cure.” Alarms should go off when you see this claim or others like it such as, “new discovery,” “scientific breakthrough” or “secret ingredient.” If a real cure for a serious disease were discovered, it would be widely reported through the media and prescribed by health professionals—not buried in print ads, TV infomercials or on Internet sites.
  • Conspiracy theories. Claims like “The pharmaceutical industry and the government are working together to hide information about a miracle cure” are always untrue and unfounded. These statements are used to distract consumers from the obvious, common-sense questions about the so-called miracle cure.

Learn more about fraudulent health products.

Don’t Be a Victim of Internet Dating Scams

Internet dating and romance scams, commonly called “sweetheart scams,” target people with online dating profiles or through social media networks, and are becoming more common. The Internet makes it easy for people to create fake identities, using other people’s pictures to pretend they are attractive and interested in you.

After a bond has been formed, the scammer will typically ask to borrow money, either for a travel expense to come visit, or because of an “emergency” to one of their family members or even to themselves.

The State Department offers these tips on how to recognize sweetheart scams:

  • The scammer and the victim meet online – often through Internet dating or employment sites.
  • The scammer asks for money to get out of a bad situation or to provide a service.
  • Photographs that the scammer sends of “him/herself” show a very attractive person. The photo appears to have been taken at a professional modeling agency or photographic studio.
  • The scammer has incredibly bad luck— often getting into car crashes, arrested, mugged, beaten, or hospitalized — usually all within the course of a couple of months. They often claim that their key family members (parents and siblings) are dead. Sometimes, the scammer claims to have an accompanying child overseas who is very sick or has been in an accident.
  • The scammer claims to be a native-born American citizen, but uses poor grammar indicative of a non-native English speaker. Sometimes the scammer will use eloquent romantic language that is plagiarized from the Internet.

The FBI also offers additional advice on dealing with sweetheart scams. You can report Internet scams to www.ic3.gov.

Learn more about sweetheart scams and how to avoid them.

Warning for Small Businesses: Don’t Open E-mail Falsely Claiming to be From FTC

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is warning small businesses that an e-mail with a subject line “NOTIFICATION OF CONSUMER COMPLAINT” is not from the FTC. The e-mail falsely states that a complaint has been filed with the agency against their company.

The FTC advises recipients not to click on any of the links or attachments with the e-mail. Clicking on the links may install a virus or other spyware on the computer. The FTC’s advice is to delete the email.

Learn more about how to prevent malicious software (malware).

Online Shopping Safety Tips

Shopping online can be easy and convenient, especially during the holiday season when stores are packed with shoppers and it’s harder to find what you want. However, scammers are always looking for ways to get your money or personal information, so it’s worth taking a few moments to learn how you can protect yourself when shopping online.

Consider these tips:

How to Avoid Scams

Minimize risks by shopping at well-established online stores with a good reputation. You can often learn a lot about the store by looking at comments and feedback from other shoppers.

Also, when shopping online:

  • Use credit cards instead of debit cards. Credit cards offer better protection against unauthorized purchases, as you are typically only responsible for $50 worth of unauthorized purchases, if that. Debit cards generally don’t offer this level of protection.
  • Calculate the total price of your purchase. Before clicking on “buy,” make sure the price includes shipping and handling, insurance, taxes and anything else that you expect from the purchase, such as discounts or coupons.
  • Read the return policy. Returns are part of the experience of shopping online, and each store has its own return and exchange policy. Some might charge fees for restocking products or for resending merchandise. By reading the return policies you will know what to expect.
  • Avoid shopping in stores outside the United States. This can help you avoid problems if you need to return or exchange items or resolve other disputes. Online retailers in the United States are subject to U.S. consumer laws and therefore offer protection to the buyer.

How to Protect Your Personal Information

Your personal information can be as valuable as money to a scammer. Scammers can use personal information like your credit card number or Social Security number to shop or steal your identity. To protect your personal information:

  • Shop at secure sites. When paying, make sure the website address begins with https (the “s” at the end means it’s secure). It also means the website encrypts the information it sends.
  • Be careful when sharing your personal information. Don’t provide your personal information in exchange for prizes or special offers. It might be a trick to get you to give away sensitive information. Also, avoid sharing your Social Security number and don’t send your personal information via e-mail. It’s not safe.
  • Be careful when using public Wi-Fi networks. The safest public networks are those where you have to type in a password. Even so, you should always use secure sites (with the address beginning with https) when shopping online.
  • Monitor your statements. Read your monthly statements to make sure there are no unauthorized purchases on your bank or credit cards. If you find unauthorized charges, contact your bank or financial institution as soon as possible.