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‘Phishing’ season here early

Tax season scam artists trying to capitalize on coming economic stimulus checks.

Scam artists never pass up a good opportunity, and the soon-to-be-issued economic stimulus checks are the latest hook they’re using as bait in a “phishing” expedition.

The checks, which could be anywhere from $300 to $1,200 for most households, are set to be mailed out beginning in May. Some crafty criminals are capitalizing on the anticipated funds by contacting people, identifying themselves as employees with the Internal Revenue Service and telling them they could get the money sooner if they choose to have it direct-deposited. And then they’re asked for their bank account information, and it’s smooth sailing for the slick con-men to access those accounts and clear them out.

“Scams always come up during tax season, but these guys have gotten very clever,” said David Stewart, state spokesman for the IRS. “They’ll play that refund game on people time and time again.”

Stewart said the scam has “spread across the nation like wildfire. You could use the word pandemic. It’s gotten that bad.”

He said the stimulus checks just got the tax return scam season off to an early start.

About three years ago, e-mail scams, known as “phishing,” began taking off as e-mails were sent out, seemingly from the IRS, Stewart said. The e-mails requested personal information, and bank account, credit card and personal identification numbers.

The first wave of these e-mails was obviously fake to those who actually took a minute to read them.

“There were misspellings and the grammar was poor,” Stewart said. “This year they look very sophisticated.”

He said the scam artists prey on Americans’ fears of the IRS and naiveté about what the IRS will and will not do when it comes to contacting people.

“Here’s the bottom line,” Stewart said. “We’re never, ever going to send you an e-mail. It just ain’t gonna happen. It would be a very rare occasion that we’d call you on the phone, and we’d never ask you for your routing number, PIN, credit card number or passwords.”

Stewart said the IRS urges people to contact their local IRS office if they get an e-mail or phone call. In the case of a call, he said, “just say ‘thank you’ and hang up.” Then call your local office, tell them you received a call and ask if the IRS is truly trying to reach you.

If an e-mail is received, never click on any links in the e-mail and don’t reply to it. Instead, forward the e-mail to phishing@irs.gov.

On the Web:

For more information, go to www.timesleader.com for a link to the IRS Web site. Then enter the terms “phishing,” “identity theft” or “e-mail scams” into the search box on the front page.

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