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Please be cautious of IRS-related scams this tax season

The Internal Revenue Service will begin accepting tax returns later this month, although many Americans will wait to file until just before the deadline in April. Between now and then, a significant number of taxpayers will become victims or potential victims of IRS-related scams and theft.

Among the most basic of these crimes is identity theft. There is not much you can do to prevent this kind of fraud except to take reasonable steps to protect the privacy of your data. But you should also be aware of a different type of scam so that you don't unwittingly fall victim to it.

Here's how it works: You receive a phone call from someone claiming to be a representative of the IRS. Your caller ID may even show that the caller is legitimate. After the caller introduces himself, he tells you that you owe money to the IRS that must be paid immediately. If you don't pay up, the caller says, you could be arrested or sued. Then, when you are sufficiently scared, the caller asks you to make a payment over the phone, in the form of a prepaid debit card or through a wire transfer.

Unfortunately, too many people fall for this scam, and tens of millions of dollars have been lost in recent years. Here are some important tips to remember so you don't also become a victim:

  1. The IRS almost never makes initial contact over the phone (they usually send letters in the mail first)
  2. A real IRS agent would not threaten you (with arrest or with anything else)
  3. The IRS does not ask for payment (and may not even accept payment) through prepaid debit cards, wire transfers or any similar means

The most important thing you can do to protect yourself is to be extremely cautious when dealing with someone who claims to be from the IRS. They may leave a callback number and your caller ID might suggest that the call is real. But don't trust this information without digging deeper. Go online and research IRS contact information for yourself. Then call the IRS to determine if the person who contacted you is legitimate.

Even if you are officially contacted by the IRS (which likely won't happen over the phone), you are not obligated to pay any money immediately. You have the right to speak with an attorney first, and exercising that right is a good idea.

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