​During tax season, taxpayers dutifully pull together documents and set upon the task of filling out forms and meeting with accountants. Tax season can be painful enough without adding in scams perpetrated by identity thieves and IRS imposters.

To save yourself an extra headache, you can start on the right foot by understanding the warning signs and security tips to help you avoid common tax refund-related scams.

Be an early bird

It is possible to fall victim to tax refund identity theft whether you are owed a refund or you owe taxes to the government. This happens when bad actors get their hands on your personal information such as your name, date of birth and/or Social Security Number, and use that information to file a fraudulent tax return for obtaining a refund and directing the funds into their account.

“The best tip for defending against this particular type of tax refund-related scam is very simple: file early!" said Ann Mele, senior vice president of security fraud operations at PNC. “The IRS will reject duplicate returns filed under the same Social Security Number, so it's important to submit your legitimate tax return before an identity thief can file a fraudulent one using your name or Social Security Number to claim an illegitimate refund."

Get it in writing first

In a different type of scam, bad actors can pretend to be IRS agents and contact taxpayers directly, demanding payment for taxes they claim are owed. They may use official-sounding titles and sprinkle in some of your personal information, such as a birthday or address, which is easily harvested from the internet. This scamming may be done with a phone call (vishing), an email (phishing) or a text message (SMiShing) on your smartphone. They often threaten you with fines, arrest or garnishing of wages if you fail to cooperate. Here's what you need to know:

  • The IRS DOES NOT initiate contact with taxpayers by email, text messages or social media channels to request personal or financial information.1
  • The IRS DOES contact you first in writing through regular mail delivered by the United States Postal Service.

“Best practice is to not take phone calls from unknown callers or numbers – let them go to voicemail," said Mele. “If you have not previously been notified in writing by the IRS of an issue, hang up on callers and delete emails and text messages claiming to be from an IRS agent."

Securely ditch the paper for digital

The IRS encourages taxpayers to file returns using electronic options and requesting direct deposit to receive a refund faster. However, when doing so, please keep security top of mind:

  • Do not use public Wi-Fi when filing your tax returns;
  • Use security software with firewall and anti-virus protections when accessing the internet;
  • Use strong passwords for online accounts — at least 10 characters, alpha-numeric, mixed case and special characters. Never repeat passwords across multiple accounts;
  • Add multi-factor authentication to your online accounts whenever available, such as a biometric authentication (fingerprint, facial recognition) or a one-time passcode sent by text message, email or telephone; and
  •  Do not open email attachments or click on email links claiming to be from the IRS. If you have not previously been notified in writing by the IRS of an issue, hang up on callers and delete emails if they claim to be from an IRS agent.

“If you have paper documents supporting your tax preparation, put those documents in a secure place to prevent sensitive information from getting into the wrong hands," said Mele. “Be sure to shred paper receipts and documents, which are not required to support taxation records to keep your identity safe."

More information is available in the Security and Privacy Center on pnc.com, Tips to Help Avoid Tax Refund-Related Scams tip sheet or by visiting the IRS Tax Scams Consumer Alerts1.​