We have been warning all year that scammers and criminal gangs have been targeting taxpayers, but this appears to be on the increase as we approach the 31 January deadline, with fraudsters using the impending deadline to panic taxpayers into sharing their financial details or paying ‘tax due’.
HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) always issue thousands of SMS messages and emails as part of its annual Self-Assessment push to get people to get their returns in on time, and this year is no exception. However, these can easily be confused with messages and emails from fraudsters offering tax rebates or tax refunds, or even threatening legal action if bogus amounts of outstanding tax are not paid immediately.
The scammers use language intended to convince victims to hand over personal information, including bank details, in order to claim a ‘refund’ or pay outstanding tax to avoid legal action. Criminals will use this information to access taxpayers’ bank accounts, trick them into paying fictitious tax bills or sell their personal information to other criminals. There are also reports of scammers becoming aggressive and threatening toward victims.
Fraudsters have been increasingly active during the pandemic, targeting people who are already vulnerable and both the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW) and HMRC have been warning accountants and tax advisors to look out for scams. However, many of the messages and emails are aimed at individuals who will not have recourse to professional advice.
Communications purporting to be from HMRC, but which are not genuine, have already become commonplace. In the last 12 months, the tax authority has responded to more than 846,000 referrals of suspicious HMRC contact from the public and reported over 15,500 malicious webpages to internet service providers.
Almost 500,000 of the instances of suspicious contact reported to HMRC related to offers of bogus tax rebates, whereby fraudsters use phone, email or text messages to contact their victims, to extract their personal details, and particularly their bank details.
What people need to look out for is:
- Emails telling taxpayers they can claim tax refunds to help prevent themselves from the Coronavirus outbreak.
- SMS messages telling taxpayers they can claim a goodwill payment from HMRC.
- WhatsApp messages of any sort.
- Telephone calls regarding a claim or payment on a debt about which the taxpayer knows nothing.
I have repeatedly warned in the last few months that HMRC:
- Does not use WhatsApp.
- Does not communicate with individuals either by email or by SMS (unless you have signed up to the relevant protocol with them)
- Will not call about a debt of which the taxpayer is not already aware.
- Will not leave voice messages explaining the reason for the call and certainly will not leave a message threatening legal action.
If in doubt:
- Do not reply to the emails or SMSs.
- Do not call the phone number listed in an SMS.
- Do not click on any links or open any attachments in emails.
- Do not visit websites detailed in the messages.
- Do not provide personal or financial details.
- If you are suspicious about the genuine nature of an email, (for example because you have signed up to the relevant protocol), click on/hover over the ‘display name’ email address from which you have received the email. This will show you the full details of the sender and will make it clear whether the email is from a genuine Government/HMRC source.
- If you are still unsure, forward it to HMRC at firstname.lastname@example.org or by sending a text to 60599, and then delete it.
- If the communication is by telephone, disconnect immediately and report it to HMRC at email@example.com including details of the date of the call, the phone number used and the call content.
This year, for the first time, HMRC will be sending reminders about Self-Assessment filing and payment to represented taxpayers. ICAEW’s Tax Faculty recommends that agents alert their clients about the genuine HMRC contact they will receive and the risk of scams.
I urge people to look at the checklist HMRC has published to help taxpayers identify if a contact is genuine. In particular, remember it could be a scam if it asks for personal information like bank details, is threatening or tells you to transfer money, or if it offers an unexpected refund. In addition, the Take Five campaign reminds people of the dos and don’ts of financial fraud and urges individuals to stop and consider whether a situation is likely to be genuine. For more information go to www.takefive-stopfraud.org.uk.
As I have already said, despite the convincing format in which fraudsters make their approaches, there are some basic ways of checking the authenticity of any contact and individuals should always be alert to the possibility of a scam.
Our increasing reliance on technology means that we are susceptible to a whole range of scams, so it is important never to give away personal information or allow ourselves to be pressured into making payments for any reason. If the contact is purporting to offer a refund then it is always best to remember the old adage that if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.