Defend Yourself Against IRS Scammers

Published in Woonsocket Call on March 27, 2016

With federal regulators reporting a surge in tax-related fraud schemes, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service and Rhode Island’s Division of Taxation are requiring new income tax filing requirements. The AARP Fraud Watch Network also gears up its efforts to protect consumers from Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Imposter Scams.

According to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS), an aggressive and sophisticated phone scam targeting taxpayers, including recent immigrants, is making its rounds throughout the nation. Here’s the scam. A caller claims to be employed by the IRS, but they are not. To be seen as legitimate the con artist uses a fake names and even rattle off a bogus IRS identification badge numbers. The caller ID may even be altered to make it look like the call is coming straight from the IRS. .

Usually victims are told they owe taxes to the IRS and it must be quickly paid through a pre-loaded debit card or wire transfer or they will suffer the consequences. If the victim refuses to cooperate with the federal agency, then they are threatened by the con artist with arrest, deportation or suspension of a business or driver’s license. In many cases, the caller becomes hostile and insulting. Victims may also be told they have a refund due to try to trick them into sharing private financial information. If the phone isn’t answered, the scammers often leave an “urgent” callback request.

Knowledge is Power over Scammers

To combat this growing problem, the AARP Fraud Watch Network gears up its educational campaign, with digital advertising featuring a new tip sheet and online video to combat the “IRS Imposter Scam.”

Our goal is to warn consumers and empower them with the knowledge they need to keep their family members from falling victim to the IRS imposters,” said Nancy LeaMond, Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer, AARP. “Once they recognize certain red flags, they will be confident in resisting the aggressive bullying and scare tactics used by the scammers.”

The Fraud Watch Network campaign is advising consumers that legitimate IRS agents do not call and demand immediate payment. The IRS will not call about owed taxes without making contact by mail. The IRS will not require a taxpayer to use a specific payment method to make a tax payment, such as a prepaid debit card; or ask for credit or debit card numbers over the phone. Finally, the IRS will not threaten to bring in local police or other law-enforcement groups to have you arrested for not paying.

For more information about the IRS scam and other tax-related frauds, visit http://www.aarp.org/FraudWatchNetwork. Consumers who think that they are being targeted by a scammer may call the FWN helpline at 877-908-3360 and speak with a trained counselor.

Federal and State Efforts to Protect Tax Payers

The IRS, announces that many newly implemented safeguards are now in place that consumers may not even be aware of, but are invaluable in fighting against the stolen identify refund fraud. Many of these changes are designed to better authenticate the tax payer’s identity and validate the tax-return at the time of filing.

The most visible change is new password protections for private-sector ax software accounts. Newly implemented standards require a minimum 8-digit password using a combination of letters, numbers and special characters. There also will be new security questions, new lock-out features and new ways to verify emails.

IRS’s password standards are intended to help protect taxpayers from identity thieves who take over their software accounts and file fraudulent tax returns using their names and Social Security numbers.

In a January 19, 2016 Advisory for Tax Professionals, Rhode Island’s Division of Taxation is putting in processing safeguards to protect an estimated 600,000 Ocean State taxpayers. Acting Tax Administrator Neena S. Savage announced that this tax season all taxpayers and preparers who file electronically will be asked to enter a driver’s license number as part of the tax preparation process.

“This is another way to verify your identity and the validity of your return before the processing of the return is completed,” says Savage, noting that the new filing requirement for is part of a coordinated and collaborative effort among the states, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, tax software providers, and others to help protect taxpayers from identity theft that may lead to tax refund fraud.

The requiring a taxpayers driver’s license is just “another layer of protection because identity thieves may already have your name and Social Security number, but perhaps not your driver’s license number,” says Savage, adding that this will assist states in matching driver’s license information with other identifying records to help confirm the filers identity.

“Tax software will prompt you for your driver’s license number. The information will be transmitted only in electronically filed returns; it will not appear on paper returns. It will also be safeguarded along with the rest of your tax return information,” adds Savage. The return will not be rejected if a taxpayer does not have a driver’s license number, or does have one
but does not provide it, she said.

New Phone app Fights IRS Phone Scam

With the April 18th Tax Day deadline fast approaching, Whitepages, a Seattle, Washington–based company releases an update for its ID app for Android that blocks suspected IRS scammers. The new Auto-Blocker automatically stops “IRS Imposter Calls” from reaching the user.

“Fraudulent phone scams are on the rise and, while some carriers and handset makers are starting to solve this problem, consumers need ways to educate and protect themselves,” said Jan Volzke, Vice President, Reputation Services at Whitepages. “While the IRS scam is far from the only unwanted call identified by our leading technology, it’s certainly top of mind this busy tax season. We want to help ease concern by making sure a large majority of those calls never reach their intended targets.”

Whitepages says, of the 300 million incoming calls that the company scans monthly in the U.S., more than 15 million are classified as “unwanted.” Last year, Whitepages identified the IRS scam as the number one type of scam call, with more than 1.2 million of these types of calls being made per month, accounting for at least 8 percent of all calls blocked by users. In addition, comparing February data from 2014 to 2016, IRS scam calls have grown exponentially, at nearly 2,500 percent over the past two years.

The new updated Whitepages ID app automatically blocks any incoming calls that have been identified by the company’s proprietary algorithms as being a known IRS scam number. The Alto-Blocker also includes the blocking of numbers that the IRS has officially flagged as suspicious.

While the Auto-Blocker stops IRS scam calls from ringing phones, users have the option to keep this auto feature on, or adjust the protection level based on type of call including: Scam or Fraud, Suspected Spam, Hidden Numbers, or International Numbers.

As scammers switch phone numbers in an effort to avoid detection, phone users will be alerted to popular or new area codes where scam calls are originating, so they can remain on the defense against numbers that may not yet have been blocked.

Finally, users can easily report IRS specific scam numbers back to Whitepages to be put on its block list.

Whitepage’s new app is free and available on GooglePlay.

Advertisements

Freelance Economy Can Be Powerful Economic Engine

Published in Pawtucket Times on June 22, 2015

Last week, it took three days for Sign Painter Jayson M. Salvi to put the final touches on the façade of the Camera Werks on Hope St.   As he sat on the pavement printing the signage, passerbuyers would stop and chat, admiring his craft.

For the 41-year-old Salvi, his passion for sign painting began in high school, ultimately continuing in his eight year stint in the U.S. Navy.  Salvi says that he usually ended up painting logos and signs on doors wherever he was assigned.

With an honorable discharge from the Navy in 2000 and a degree in business administration he earned at Norfolk University while serving in the military, Salvi came to Providence to be near family.  He began his sign painting business at the former Providence-based Tazza Restaurant after an unsuccessful venture in the candle making business, followed by several retail jobs.  Word of mouth advertising about his artistic talent led to more freelance painting opportunities at the Trinity Brew House, RISD’s Second Life, a nonprofit student run recycling material center, and the Camera Werks, to name a few.

Working a full-time retail job pays for his health insurance, for him and his wife, Kate, a self employed photographer and card designer.     Salvi estimates that he pulls in around $30,000 a year from his freelancing.  “Try buying a Cadillac with that,” he says.  But in a blink of an eye he would leave retail forever to make a living from full-time sign painting, he says. “Self employed people do whatever they need to do to pay the bills to do the things they love to do,” he says.

Spotlight on Rhode Island Freelances

According to federal census data released last month, Salvi and his wife join over 73,700 sole proprietors in Rhode Island who earned a total of over $3.3 billion in annual income. These Ocean State residents are self-employed, sole proprietors, freelancers, independent contractors and non-employee small businesses, says Olon Reeder, of Olon Reeder Associates, a public relations consulting firm that represents self employed clients.  .

The federal census data, culled from 2013 sole proprietor income tax filings from the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, indicate that the top work performed by Rhode Island’s self employed workers included Professional/Technical/Scientific services; Other Non-Governmental services; Real Estate; Construction; and Health and Social services, says Reeder.

Reeder, 56, states that despite an improving jobs market in Southern New England [the latest state unemployment numbers drop to 5.9 percent, the lowest since 2007], it’s still very difficult for many unemployed Rhode Islanders to get back to full-time work.  But, the Ocean State has been able to maintain stable job growth, in particular, the state’s freelance workforce, says the North Providence resident and businessman.

Reeder, who has been a public relations consultant for almost 28 years, notes that many sole proprietors active in Rhode Island are “baby boomers” aged 50 and over that are turning to freelance work full time because they were laid off from regular work or early retirees; are encoring into lifelong ambitions they feel are essential in the marketplace; or are working for themselves out of necessity due to long term unemployment.

Nationally, the latest Census Data figures report that for 2013 there were 23 million Americans working solo earning $1 trillion in receipts, that’s up from 2011 figures, which showed at that time there were only 22.5 million people who worked for themselves and collectively earned at that time $989.6 billion, says Reeder..

”The latest figures, from 2013, also show that Rhode Island’s sole proprietors had receipts of $3.3 billion.,” Reeder adds, noting that when compared to similar numbers from 2011, self employment increased by 700 jobs over the last three years (over 200 annually) and income went up by $2 million over the last three years (over $300 thousand annually).

Interestingly, next door in Massachusetts, self employment went dramatically down in the “Bay State,” as Federal figures indicated that only 263,500 freelance workers in 2013, compared to the 471,800 solo workers employed in 2011. Earnings for Massachusetts independents also fell in 2013, with only $15.2 million in receipts, compared to $24.4 million in 2011, he said.

“Finally, Rhode Island has something we do best when it comes to our self-employed workers,” he says, noting that the state now rates better than its next door neighbor. “It’s something we can boast about,” he says.

Self-Employed, an Economic Engine

State and local politicians tend to focus their energy on attracting large companies to the state [like 38 Studios], but tend to ignore the self-employed, charges Reeder, a long time tireless and passionate advocate for self-employed workers.  “The self employed are a powerhouse that can no longer be ignored and must be reckoned with,” he says.

“Rhode Island’s self employed are a best kept secret that need to be taken advantaged of to improve our state’s long tern economic development and quality of life,”  says Reeder.  “Very few businesses create over 200 jobs a year and pay per capita per sole proprietor an average of over $44,000 a year. This is how the freelance economy is changing our lives,” he says.

With the ending of this years’ legislative session, Reeder calls on lawmakers to look down the road to investing in state’s self-employed work force.  Usually the General Assembly tackles the tax code to make it more business-friendly for large corporations or targeted industries without considering providing incentives or tax incentives to the state’s self employed.

Like previous years, Reeder opposes any revisiting of placing fees or expansion of sales taxes on services provided by the self-employed.   “There must be a level playing field for all business,” he says, ‘everyone should be treated equally.”.

Reeder believes Rhode Island has become a leader in growing its free lance work force and this could just become a powerful economic engine to revitalize the state’s  sputtering economy.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer covering aging, health care and medical issues.  He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.