The IRS Is Warning Taxpayers About a New Scam—Here's What to Do About It

iStock
iStock

If an unexpected windfall from the IRS lands in your bank account before Tax Day, don’t count yourself lucky. It’s not a convenient new tax break, but a scam by identity theft experts hoping to collect fraudulent tax refunds.

Here’s how it works, according to WIRED: First, you’ll notice a sudden influx of cash in your bank account courtesy of the IRS. Clearly, the deposit is a mistake—you haven’t even started filing your taxes yet. But it’s not a clerical error. Someone has stolen your identity and filed taxes on your behalf, eager to reap the rewards from the IRS. Soon after the funds are deposited, you’ll get a call demanding the money back. A scammer will pose as someone from a collection agency linked with the IRS, demanding the money back. In some cases, people receive robocalls saying they could be arrested if they don’t return the money ASAP—to the scammers’ “collection agency,” that is.

It’s a clever scheme because the money is, in fact, in your account, and since you know it isn’t the refund you filed for, it’s easy to convince you that you need to give the money back. But obviously, you don’t want to send it to your scammer.

The IRS has issued several warnings about the scam, asking financial professionals to watch out for phishing attacks and, in general, to beef up their security procedures. The agency traced the scam back to hackers stealing data from the computers of tax professionals, giving them access to the personal information necessary to file fraudulent tax returns.

Since the 2018 tax deadline isn’t until April 17, it’s safe to say that most of us haven’t filed our taxes yet. So if you do see a few thousand dollars (or up to $20,000, according to The New York Times) waltz into your account from the government, it probably isn’t legit. Here’s what to do if you fall victim to it:

Report your identity as stolen. You’ll need to file a complaint at identitytheft.gov. The site will help guide you through the process and provide you with the forms you need.

If you’ve received a direct deposit, contact your bank and have them return it. You’ll need to go through the bank’s Automated Clearing House (ACH) department. Then call the IRS at 1-800-829-1040 to tell them what happened and why they’re getting their money back.

If you got the refund in the form of a paper check (how old school), write “void” in the check’s endorsement section, then return it to the IRS. Send it back to the city where the IRS sent it from, which you can see on the bottom of the check in front of the words “tax refund.” The IRS has a list of mailing addresses at the bottom of this release.

According to The New York Times, you’ll also want to get in touch with the IRS to find out whether or not the scammers actually filed a fake tax return under your name and Social Security number, since some scammers might file a fraudulent return under one name and send it to a bank account that’s under another. If they did file a return under your name, it'll complicate the process of you filing your real returns this year.

Whatever you do, don’t spend the money—you’ll have to return the money to the IRS and, adding insult to injury, you may have to pay interest on it to boot.

And if you haven't gotten a bogus refund? This may be the kick in the pants you need to get you filing your taxes as early as you can.

[h/t WIRED]

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

10 Tips for Avoiding Germs on Flights

Masakatsu Ukon, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Masakatsu Ukon, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The continued spread of the coronavirus pandemic raises valid concerns for domestic and international travel. As the number of cases keeps increasing in some parts of the world, travel restrictions won’t be relaxed anytime soon. Airlines are postponing and canceling flights globally, but for many individuals, travel remains an essential function.

Some people have already put their plans on hold to reduce the risk of infection, but if you absolutely need to travel by air, here are several helpful tips to avoid germs at the airport and inside the airplane.

1. Use the online check-in before arriving at the airport.

Skip the line at the airport counter and avoid unnecessary contact by checking in to your flight online. Many airlines allow passengers to check in up to 24 hours before their flight’s departure. It’s the safest and most comfortable option, and you’ll also steer clear of the germs on self-service check-in kiosks.

2. Choose a window seat on the plane.

When reserving your seat during the ticket-buying or check-in process, the one you choose makes a difference in your potential exposure to germs. Some airlines have chosen to leave the middle seats empty, leaving you with two other options in a typical medium-sized plane. Passengers in window seats are exposed to the fewest people during an average flight, so that’s your best bet. Avoid booking the aisle seats, which pose the highest risk of contact with multiple people.

3. Wear a face mask.

Properly wearing face masks and cloth face coverings are essential to reducing the spread of the coronavirus and other pathogens. It protects you and everyone else, too. Several airlines are making face coverings mandatory because social distancing measures are much more difficult to maintain inside the aircraft.

“It’s important to remember that all of the new guidance we’ve got used to over the past few months, like social distancing and hygiene measures, still apply when you travel,” travel expert and 5 Star Villa Holidays founder John Paul Donnelly tells Mental Floss.

4. Keep items stored inside your bag at security checkpoints.

The plastic bins for personal belongings are also used by other travelers, increasing your potential exposure to germs. Instead of emptying the contents of your pockets into the bins, it’s better if you keep your phone, wallet, and other loose belongings inside your bag. You’ll also avoid a pat-down by having removed anything that will set off the alarms.

5. Bring enough disinfectant wipes and alcohol-based sanitizer.

At least the chairs are socially distanced at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas.Daryl DeHart, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Anticipate all your travel needs beforehand. Donnelly says that sanitizing wipes, disinfecting alcohol and sanitizers, and face masks are now as essential to travel as passports and luggage, so pack these necessary items in your carry-on bag (just make sure that each container of gel or liquid is less than 3 ounces to pass U.S. security screening). Ensure that you have enough to disinfect your hands, cellphone, and immediate environment when you board the plane.

6. Refrain from touching your face.

A small behavioral observation study in 2015 revealed that people touch their faces an average of 23 times per hour. Face-touching is very instinctive—people often don’t realize they’re doing it. But during this pandemic, you need to avoid it as much as possible to reduce the spread of germs. Even if you haven’t touched any public surfaces, just don’t do it.

7. Take advantage of cashless transactions.

Some airport stores allow electronic payments from digital wallets. This kind of transaction, along with recent technological innovations such as virtual boarding passes and online check-ins, reduces unnecessary contact while traveling. Even though there’s a low probability [PDF] of virus transmission through money, it’s still overloaded with germs that you wouldn’t want to hold on to. According to Donnelly, eliminating the chances of contact is vital for the travel industry as it adapts to the pandemic.

8. Stay away from crowds.

This may be easier said than done, but there are a few ways you can keep a safe distance between yourself and others. Maintain a six-foot physical distance when lining up for security checkpoints or offloading luggage. Donnelly suggests minimizing your movement around the airport, so stay put as much as you can. While waiting to board the plane, choose a seat in the waiting area at least six feet away from anyone else—or stand apart from a crowded seating arrangement. Try to board last so you can avoid queuing in narrow walkways along with the other passengers.

9. Disinfect high-touch surfaces at your seat on the plane.

Although airlines are enhancing their cleaning routines, you should still sanitize your immediate environment on your own. Disinfect the high-touch surfaces like the armrest, tray table, seatbelt buckle, headrest, and seat and screen controls. Research has shown that the novel coronavirus may last two to three days on plastic and stainless steel, so clean everything that previous passengers could have possibly touched before you sat down.

10. Turn on the overhead air vent.

The frequent passenger turnaround can be a concern in enclosed environments such as airplanes, but as Donnelly says, “most large airplanes have sophisticated filtration systems [PDF] in place, which means the air is likely to be cleaner than in other confined spaces.” For extra protection from viruses and germs remaining in the air, turn on the overhead vent. It creates an air barrier around your seat that can disperse potentially harmful particles into the plane’s filtration system, where they will be neutralized.

Wherever you’re going, remember to exercise caution every step of the way. A little more attention to detail will keep you from compromising your health.