Lawrence Walsh: Beware of Internet crooks posing as the IRS

Mess with the IRS?

You've got to be kidding.

But that's what a scammer was doing when he called Ed Wuenstel of Hays.

When Mr. Wuenstel's cell phone rang last week, the caller ID read: "Out of Area." He said that lack of identification immediately made him suspicious.

"I never use my cell phone for any business transaction, and I am on every Do Not Call list."

The man on the phone said he was calling from the Internal Revenue Service. Mr. Wuenstel asked the caller how he got his number. The man said it came up on a computer. He then asked Mr. Wuenstel for his Social Security number "to verify" who he was.

"I told him that if he really was from the IRS, he already knew what my Social Security number was," Mr. Wuenstel said.

The caller became indignant.

"You mean you will not answer questions for the IRS."

"You are correct," Mr. Wuenstel said. "Put your information request in writing and send it to me." He said he then "thanked" the caller and hung up.

"Some people might be scared into responding to this kind of call," said Mr. Wuenstel, 69, a retired state employee who worked in the unemployment compensation office. "You might want to warn people."

It turns out that such calls are only one kind of fraud the IRS is combating.

Last month, the agency issued several warnings on its Web site -- www.irs.gov -- about fraudulent use of the IRS name or logo by crooks trying to gain access to consumers' financial information to steal their identity and assets.

Such activity is known as phishing, as in "fishing for information." It works like this:

Internet crooks send e-mail messages to trick unsuspecting victims into revealing personal and financial information that can be used to steal the victims' identity. One of the phony e-mails currently in vogue tells the victims they are entitled to a tax refund. Another implies the recipients are under scrutiny by the agency's Criminal Investigation Division.

The agency said e-mails "claiming to come from tax-refunds@irs.gov, admin@irs.gov and similar variations told the recipients they were eligible to receive a tax refund for a given amount," often $63.80. It directed the recipients to claim it by using a link in the e-mail that sent them to a Web site.

"The site, a copy of the IRS Web site, displayed an interactive page similar to a genuine IRS one," the agency said. "However, it had been modified to ask for personal and financial information that the genuine IRS interactive page does not require."

The IRS said the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration "has found numerous separate Web sites in at least 20 different countries hosting variations on this scheme.

So what should taxpayers do?

"Everyone should beware of these scam artists," Acting IRS Commissioner Kevin Brown said in a statement. "Always exercise caution when you receive unsolicited e-mails or e-mails from senders you don't know."

Mr. Brown said the IRS doesn't send unsolicited e-mails or ask for detailed personal and financial information. Neither does it ask people for their PIN numbers, passwords or similar secret access information for their credit card, bank or other financial accounts.

The IRS said anyone who receives questionable e-mails claiming to come from the IRS shouldn't open any attachments or click on any links. Instead, it should forward them to phishing@irs.gov.

The agency said it has received more than 17,700 e-mails from taxpayers reporting more than 240 separate phishing incidents since it established the phishing mailbox last year.

The IRS said it can use the information from the suspicious e-mails, including their Universal Resource Locator (URLs) and any links in them to trace the hosting Web site and alert authorities to help shut them down.

To report the fraudulent use of the IRS name, logo, forms or other IRS property, like the phony call Mr. Wuenstel received, call the toll-free hot line 1-800-366-4484 or visit the Web site of the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration -- www.tigta.gov.



Post Your Problems appears Tuesday through Friday, addressing questions and problems from readers. Yvonne Zanos from KDKA-TV looks into consumer-related issues, including difficulties with products and services. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Lawrence Walsh helps sort through bureaucratic problems.

Lawrence Walsh can be reached at pyp@post-gazette.com and 412-263-1895.

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