MARCO ISLAND — Lisa Gandy wasn’t sure why the Internal Revenue Service would send her an email. She wondered if the economy had led the agency to start communicating with taxpayers electronically.
“I thought maybe the IRS was trying to save money and use email,” she recalled after getting the electronic message in her inbox a few weeks ago.
Like any conscientious taxpayer, Gandy opened the official-looking message, which stated that the IRS could not process her tax return because of incomplete information. After reading the instructions to open an attachment and send a photocopy of a valid identification card, such a driver’s license or social security card, Gandy took a more careful second look at the message. The IRS logo was fuzzy and a few of the sentences didn’t make sense.
“As soon as I saw it I realized it might be a scam.”
She was right.
Gandy forwarded the message to Iberia Bank vice president Keith Dameron, who has been doing community presentations on scams like this one for more than two years.
“I’m being called on a weekly basis from people in the area who receive an email and aren’t sure if it’s a scam or not,” he said.
The computer software used by Iberia flagged Gandy’s email as suspicious. Gandy deleted the email and so did Dameron, but not before making a copy of the message to use as a warning to his many contacts.
“People at home would get this, and even if they thought it was a scam, they’re curious and they open the attachment,” Dameron said. “That’s a horrible mistake.”
Dameron says when unsuspecting email users click on attachments from unknown sources, malware – short for malicious software – can become attached to a user’s computer. From there, the user’s personal information is at risk, and can be used by criminals to steal a person’s identity.
“They (scammers) can potentially have access to every password they use: a person’s bank account, bill paying facilities like Paypal, their brokerage account and their credit card information.”
According to Dameron, who focuses his attention on scams targeting people in Marco Island and Naples, at least a dozen scams are actively taking place in the area, whether through emails such as the one Gandy received, phone scams soliciting money for a grandchild in jail or credit card skimming, where criminals use a device to copy the digital information from the magnetic stripe on a card, and obtain the PIN when a debit card is used.
Every time Dameron talks to a group about scams, someone comes up to admit they’ve been a victim. Many, he says, are so embarrassed they never report the crime to police or tell family members. He’s even met local residents who have lost as much as $200,000 to scammers.
It’s a problem the Internal Revenue Service hears about often.
“People should be on alert not to be duped,” said Michael Dobzinski, a media relations specialist for the Internal Revenue Service.
Dobinski says the elderly, poor and those who don’t speak English are often the target of internet scams. He adds that the IRS never sends out unsolicited emails to taxpayers. Anyone who has questions about their tax return or refund can go to the IRS website to get information. There is also an email address to report suspicious emails like the one Gandy received.
Gandy hopes everyone with an email account takes a closer look at the messages they receive, and not fall for scams like the one she found in her inbox. Dameron sent a copy of the emailed letter (without the attachment) to all of his clients and contacts so they realize how easy it is to be duped by an official-looking letter, and know that one click is all it takes to become a victim of identity theft.
“This happens to people on Marco; people we know.”
Don’t be a victim
Scammers make emails look official, but don’t be fooled. Here are some red flags and steps you can take to protect yourself:
- The email has a fuzzy logo
- There is poor grammar, sentence structure and spelling errors
- Acronyms are not correct (e.g. Internal Revenue Source instead of Internal Revenue Service)
- The email suggests you link to another website similar to a well known site. (e.g. www.IRS.net)
- Be sure anti-spyware is installed on your computer and is up-to-date
- Don’t open attachments from anyone you don’t know and trust
From the IRS
- The IRS does not send unsolicited emails to taxpayers
- The agency’s official website is www.IRS.gov. It does not use any other website
- Report suspicious emails to: phishing@IRS.gov