When is a tax-man not a tax-man? Answer — when he is a fraudster trying to get your details from you.
The reason I am writing this article is that there is an increasing number of people pretending to be HM Revenue & Customs officials.
This can occur in a phone call, a letter or an email. Generally, they want your money, but sometimes they are private detectives or computer geeks who want to spread viruses.
Firstly, I would point out that the Revenue rarely contacts people by email about their income tax. Some VAT officers use email and this is welcomed by accountants, but email use for tax is still rare.
This should put into context for you that an email looking like it is from the Revenue should be regarded with scepticism.
Of course if the email is from someone you are dealing with and about a subject the two of you are working on then it is OK.
Another factor which should make you suspicious is that fake emails will often not have your name and National Insurance number. They may simply refer to you as Dear Customer.
A lot of the phone calls or emails will purport to be from the Revenue and suggest you may be due a refund. The email addresses used may well look legitimate, some even ending with hmrc.gov.uk or hmrc.gsi.gov.uk
The most important thing about receiving such an email is that you should:
- Never give out your bank details to someone who phones or emails saying they are from the Revenue.
- Never click on any of the links in a suspicious email
- Always forward a dodgy tax email to the Revenue at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Revenue wants you to forward these suspicious emails to them at the above address. They will probably not reply to you but by getting the emails they can keep aware of the latest scam.
These fraudsters change tactics as often as most people change their socks, so it is hard for the Revenue to keep up with them.
Phone calls could be more tricky since you might be asked for personal information to verify that they are talking to the correct taxpayer. This is normal practice by tax and bank officials.
It is difficult to advise what to do here. Be careful if you were not expecting a phone call from the Revenue. Most of all, once someone starts asking for bank details or passwords and PINs then you know they are up to no good. End the call.
Any legitimate tax official can be asked to put their query in writing if you become suspicious on the phone.
An email that has arrived in my email box recently was quite a clever one. It said that my parcel from France was waiting at a depot.
I needed to complete a Customs Clearance form to have it released. To do that I had to click on a download button for said form.
Thankfully my naturally sceptical mind prevented me from clicking the link — because dear knows what would have happened with my computer.
You have to remember that sometimes these emails are not seeking to extract money from you, they are just sent by sick individuals who like infecting other people’s computers.
An email about a parcel needing a customs payment or a form filled in could easily catch someone who is expecting a parcel from overseas, especially near Christmas, so watch out.
Scam letters can be sent out with realistic looking logos and HM Revenue & Customs headings. As I said, if it asks for bank details or it fails to show your own tax reference or National Insurance number, it is probably dodgy.
If you have access to a scanner I suggest you scan the document and email it to the Revenue’s security people at email@example.com
I suppose when I write about this my article may come too late for some people, who may already have supplied details to fraudsters.
If you have lost money from a bank or credit card then immediately report it to the bank and to the police. If you gave away your bank details then immediately contact your bank today.
They may be able to take action in time before money is stolen from you. Do not be embarrassed that you made the mistake, simply take the wise course of action and let the professionals help you.
Adrian Huston, a former tax inspector, is a director of Belfast tax and accountancy firm Huston & Co – www.hustontax.com or (028) 9080 6080