You cannot copy content of this page

How to Avoid Online Scams This 2020 Tax Season

It was a sad story about online scams behind this text. Dong Ngo | Dong Knows Tech

I received the text in the screenshot above just yesterday. Behind it was another upsetting story about online scams. 

This kind of scams happens all year long but are more prevalent during the U.S Tax season. A couple of friends asked me for help on this matter in the past week alone. Most of the time, though, when you realize you need assistance, it’s kind of too late.

This post will explain the stages of a scam and how you can avoid it. 

The three stages of an online scam

Computer experts tend to categorize online scams into many different categories, like romance scams, phishing, bank fraud, etc.

But they are all just one type: They trick you into believing in something that’s not real to get your money, sometimes a lot of it. The scams can be so elaborate; it’s hard to blame you.

Here are the three parts of how a scam work.

1. The hook

At this stage, you’re presented with a startling or compelling message that urges you to take action. The action can be a variety of things, such as sending your personal information via email, downloading/installing software on your computer, or calling a number. 

The scammer design the message to trick you. They pretend to represent an entity you can trust, like the IRS, a big company, or a charity.

The content of the message might vary, but it’s always urgent, alarming, scary, or enticing. It even makes noise or ejects your computer’s DVD drive to prove its point. It plays on one’s vulnerabilities, including gullibility, anxiety, and greed. 

“How did this happen to me? I didn’t do anything!” you ask.

It doesn’t take much to run into a message like that. And, if this makes you feel better, it happens to me quite often. 

For one, we give out our email address to different people, company or institutions — we have to, that’s how communication works. But, for example, if one of those got hacked, your email address is now in a bad guy’s hand. 

Another common way is a fake website. Scammers set up a temporary site using an address that is a common typo of a popular legitimate website, such as wellfargo.com, microsof.com, etc. Or it can use a random domain with a link embedded to an email sent to you, and you just click on it.

Don’t bite!

The bottom line is, don’t worry about why and how a scam hook appears in front of you. Just don’t bite!

And by that, I mean, do not follow any request or demand that appears on the screen, no matter how compelling it is. Instead, you should close the browser, or delete the email. If you can’t, turn your computer off. If your computer appears to freeze, press and holds the power button for a few seconds, and it will go off. 

If you keep receiving the same message when you turn your computer on again, it’s likely because you allow the machine to automatically reopen the programs that were running in the previous section. You can uncheck the related box on a Mac, or follow this tip on a Windows computer.

But the good news is no damage has been done. 

A fake online security message. You better not call that number. Screenshot by Dong Ngo

2. You take the bait

If you follow through with the scam message, depending on what you do, you’ll face a minor or severe problem. Here are a few scenarios.

1. If you just reply to an email with a few extra information about yourself, like a home address and phone number. Well, you can expect to hear more from the scammer. Now just ignore any further correspondence, and you’re probably OK.

2. If you have sent the scammer some money. Too bad, your money is gone. Hopefully, that’s the extend of the damage.

READ MORE:  Netgear Adds Doorbell and Chime to Arlo Home Security

3. If you call a number, expect the person on the other end to sound very professional and authoritative. They are excellent actors. They will give you instructions and will probably call you back to ask you to send money eventually, or give them information to access your bank account. Hopefully, you’ll realize something fishy during the process and stop.

4. If you follow the instruction and download/install software on your computer, this is the worst. Unfortunately, this is also the easiest thing to fall for since it might take just a few clicks.

The damage

The scammer now can scan your computer and look for more personal information, such as your saved password, or a copy of your tax return.

So it’s now your luck how much they can glean from the computer. At best, the bad guys don’t get anything; at worse, they’ll have a copy of your financial information as well as your social security.

With those, they can scam you and your family further and even use your identities to commit financial frauds, like getting a loan or, during this time, file your taxes and get fraudulent refunds.

They can also install ransomware on your computer and extort money from you over time.

If you’re at this stage, make sure you turn that computer off and don’t use it again. Seek professional IT help to recover your data and get your computer cleaned.

3. The headache

If you have fallen for a scam and believe that they have obtained your social security number, you need to assume the worst.

Even if you pay them the fee they ask, they’ll keep coming back for more. What’s more, they’ll use your information to prey on your family and friends.

Here are what you should do:

  1. File your taxes as soon as possible. Don’t let the bad guys do that before you.
  2. Use a clean computer and change all of your crucial online access passwords, including those of your banks, your email, or any other accounts with sensitive information. Get an online identity protection plan.
  3. Inform your loved ones on your situation so they can take precautions. Report the incident to your banks and the authorities.

How to be safe online

By now, you might have noticed that the only way to stay safe online is not to go past the first stage mentioned above. In other words, don’t take the bait.

Following are what you should keep in mind:

  1. Use common sense. If something seems odds, chances are it’s indeed odd.
  2. No stranger (or website) who comes to you with unsolicited information means well. They all try to get something out of you.
  3. No authority will contact you online on serious matters. They will send you a letter via the post office, or a real person.

With that, here are what you should do when being online:

  1. A few mindless clicks on a computer can lead to grave consequences. Don’t be a click-happy user! Consider a mouse click (or hitting Enter) as pulling the trigger on a gun. There’s no undo after that. So, take a few seconds to make sure you’re aware of what about to happen.
  2. Use some online protection software, but don’t trust it completely. No security software company guarantees the effectiveness of their product because they know they can’t. You’re the final defense.
  3. Don’t react to any messages (email or website) without thoughts. The first thing you should ask yourself is: Is this real? And only take action when your answer is affirmative.

The final thought

Like things in real life, an online scam takes two, the scammer and the scammed. You can’t do anything about the former, but there are absolutely ways to avoid being the latter. Don’t wait till it’s too late. 

Ω Found a typo? Please report it by selecting the text and pressing Ctrl + Enter. Thank you! ❤️

You May Also Like

About the Author: Dong Ngo

Before Dong Knows Tech, I spent some 18 years testing and reviewing gadgets at CNET.com. Technology is my passion and I do know it. | Follow me on Twitter, or Facebook!

Leave a comment (no spam or profanity, please!)

Get Dong Know Tech's Updates:

Spamming is NEVER included!

Thank You For Subscribing!

Don't forget to wash your hands regularly with soap! Stay Safe! ❤️

Spelling error report

The following text will be sent to our editors: