Click on the links below to jump to each section in this article:
- Dirty Dozen Tax Scams: 2020 Edition
- Exiting a Business: Which Option Is Right for You?
- Protect Tax Records Before Disaster Strikes
- Filing an Amended Tax Return
- Tax Breaks for Teachers and Educators
Dirty Dozen Tax Scams: 2020 Edition
The “Dirty Dozen” is a list of common tax scams that target taxpayers. Compiled and issued annually every year by the IRS, this year it includes many aggressive and evolving schemes related to coronavirus tax relief, including Economic Impact Payments. The criminals behind these bogus schemes view everyone as potentially easy prey and everyone should be on guard, especially vulnerable populations such as the elderly.
While tax-related scams usually increase at tax time, this year, scam artists are using pandemic to try stealing money and information from honest taxpayers. As such, taxpayers should refrain from engaging potential scammers online or on the phone.
Here are this year’s “Dirty Dozen” tax scams:
Taxpayers should be alert to potential fake emails or websites looking to steal personal information. IRS Criminal Investigation has seen a tremendous increase in phishing schemes utilizing emails, letters, texts, and links. These phishing schemes are using keywords such as “coronavirus,” “COVID-19” and “Stimulus” in various ways.
These schemes are blasted to large numbers of people to get personal identifying information or financial account information, including account numbers and passwords. Most of these new schemes are actively playing on the fear and unknown of the virus and the stimulus payments.
Don’t click on links claiming to be from the IRS and be very wary of emails and websites as they may be nothing more than scams to steal personal information. As a reminder, the IRS will never initiate contact with taxpayers via email about a tax bill, refund or Economic Impact Payments.
2. Fake Charities
Criminals frequently exploit natural disasters and other situations such as the current COVID-19 pandemic by setting up fake charities to steal from well-intentioned people trying to help in times of need. Fake charity scams generally rise during disaster times like these.
Fraudulent schemes normally start with unsolicited contact by telephone, text, social media, e-mail, or in-person using a variety of tactics. Bogus websites use names similar to legitimate charities to trick people to send money or provide personal financial information. They may even claim to be working for or on behalf of the IRS to help victims file casualty loss claims and get tax refunds.
Taxpayers should be particularly wary of charities with names like nationally known organizations. Legitimate charities will provide their Employer Identification Number (EIN) if requested, which can be used to verify their legitimacy. Taxpayers can find legitimate and qualified charities using the search tool on IRS.gov.
3. Threatening Impersonator Phone Calls
IRS impersonation scams come in many forms such as receiving threatening phone calls from a criminal claiming to be with the IRS where the scammer attempts to instill fear and urgency in the potential victim. These types of phone scams or “vishing” (voice phishing) pose a major threat. Scam phone calls, including those threatening arrest, deportation or license revocation if the victim doesn’t pay a bogus tax bill, are reported to the IRS year-round and are very common. These calls often take the form of a “robocall” (a text-to-speech recorded message with instructions for returning the call).
The fact is, the IRS will never threaten a taxpayer or surprise him or her with a demand for immediate payment. Nor will it threaten, ask for financial information over the phone, or call about an unexpected refund or Economic Impact Payment. Taxpayers should contact the real IRS or consult a tax and accounting professional if they are worried there is a tax problem.
4. Social Media Scams
Social media enables anyone to share information with anyone else on the Internet. Scammers use that information as ammunition for a wide variety of scams. As such, taxpayers need to protect themselves against social media scams, which frequently use events like COVID-19 to try tricking people. These methods of trickery include emails where scammers impersonate someone’s family, friends or co-workers.
Social media scams have also led to tax-related identity theft. The basic element of social media scams is convincing a potential victim that he or she is dealing with a person close to them that they trust via email, text or social media messaging.
Using personal information, a scammer may email a potential victim and include a link to something of interest to the recipient which contains malware intended to commit more crimes. Scammers also infiltrate their victim’s emails and cell phones to go after their friends and family with fake emails that appear to be real and text messages soliciting, for example, small donations to fake charities that are appealing to the victims.
5. Economic Impact Payment or Refund Theft
Great strides have been made against refund fraud and theft in recent years, but they remain an ongoing threat. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, this year, criminals turned their attention to stealing Economic Impact Payments as provided by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Much of this stems from identity theft whereby criminals file false tax returns or supply other bogus information to the IRS to divert refunds to wrong addresses or bank accounts.
Recent victims of this type of scam include residents of nursing homes and other care facilities when concerns were raised that people and businesses may be taking advantage of vulnerable populations who received the payments. Economic Impact Payments generally belong to the recipients, not the organizations providing the care.
As a reminder, economic impact payments do not count as a resource for determining eligibility for Medicaid and other federal programs They also do not count as income in determining eligibility for these programs.
6. Senior Citizen Fraud
Seniors are more likely to be targeted and victimized by scammers than other segments of society and fraud targeting older Americans is pervasive. Financial abuse of seniors is a problem among personal and professional relationships but seems to be less of a problem when the service provider knows that a trusted friend or family member is keeping an eye out and taking an interest in the senior’s affairs.
Also, as older Americans become more comfortable with evolving technologies, such as social media, scammers have moved in to take advantage. Phishing scams linked to Covid-19, for example, have been a major threat this filing season. Seniors need to be alert for a continuing surge of fake emails, text messages, websites, and social media attempts to steal personal information.
7. Scams Targeting Non-English Speakers
IRS impersonators and other scammers also target groups with limited English proficiency. These scams target those potentially receiving an Economic Impact Payment and request personal or financial information from the taxpayer.
Phone scams are often threatening in nature and pose a major threat to people with limited access to information, including individuals not entirely comfortable with the English language. These calls frequently take the form of a “robocall” (a text-to-speech recorded message with instructions for returning the call), but in some cases may be made by a real person. These con artists may have some of the taxpayer’s information, including their address, the last four digits of their Social Security number or other personal details, which makes the phone calls seem more legitimate.
One of the most common scams is the IRS impersonation scam where a taxpayer receives a telephone call threatening jail time, deportation or revocation of a driver’s license from someone claiming to be with the IRS. Taxpayers who are recent immigrants often are the most vulnerable and should ignore these threats and not engage the scammers.
8. “Ghost” Tax Return Preparers
Selecting the right return preparer is important because they are entrusted with a taxpayer’s sensitive personal data. Most tax professionals provide honest, high-quality service, but dishonest preparers pop up every filing season committing fraud, harming innocent taxpayers or talking taxpayers into doing illegal things they regret later.
Taxpayers should always avoid so-called “ghost” preparers who expose their clients to potentially serious filing mistakes as well as possible tax fraud and risk of losing their refunds. With many tax professionals impacted by COVID-19 and their offices potentially closed, taxpayers should take particular care in selecting a credible tax preparer.
Ghost preparers don’t sign the tax returns they prepare. They may print the tax return and tell the taxpayer to sign and mail it to the IRS. For e-filed returns, the ghost preparer will prepare but not digitally sign as the paid preparer. By law, anyone who is paid to prepare or assists in preparing federal tax returns must have a Preparer Tax Identification Number (PTIN). Paid preparers must sign and include their PTIN on returns.
Unscrupulous preparers may also target those without a filing requirement and may or may not be due to a refund. They promise inflated refunds by claiming fake tax credits, including education credits, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), and others. Taxpayers should avoid preparers who ask them to sign a blank return, promise a big refund before looking at the taxpayer’s records or charge fees based on a percentage of the refund.
Taxpayers are ultimately responsible for the accuracy of their tax return, regardless of who prepares it.
9. Offer in Compromise (OIC) Mills
Taxpayers need to be wary of misleading tax debt resolution companies that can exaggerate chances to settle tax debts for “pennies on the dollar” through an Offer in Compromise (OIC). These offers are available for taxpayers who meet very specific criteria under the law to qualify for reducing their tax bill. But unscrupulous companies oversell the program to unqualified candidates so they can collect a hefty fee from taxpayers already struggling with debt.
These scams are commonly called OIC “mills,” which cast a wide net for taxpayers, charge them pricey fees and churn out applications for a program they’re unlikely to qualify for. Although the OIC program helps thousands of taxpayers each year reduce their tax debt, not everyone qualifies for an OIC. In Fiscal Year 2019, there were 54,000 OICs submitted to the IRS. The agency accepted 18,000 of them.
10. Fake Payments with Repayment Demands
Criminals are always finding new ways to trick taxpayers into believing their scam including putting a bogus refund into the taxpayer’s actual bank account. Here’s how the scam works:
A con artist steals or obtains a taxpayer’s data including Social Security number or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) and bank account information. The scammer files a bogus tax return and has the refund deposited into the taxpayer’s checking or savings account. Once the direct deposit hits the taxpayer’s bank account, the fraudster places a call to them, posing as an IRS employee. The taxpayer is told that there’s been an error and that the IRS needs the money returned immediately or penalties and interest will result. The taxpayer is told to buy specific gift cards for the amount of the refund.
The IRS will never demand payment by a specific method. There are many payment options available to taxpayers and there’s also a process through which taxpayers have the right to question the amount of tax we say they owe. Anytime a taxpayer receives an unexpected refund and a call from us out of the blue demanding a refund repayment, they should reach out to their banking institution and the IRS.
11. Payroll and HR Scams
Tax professionals, employers, and taxpayers need to be on guard against phishing designed to steal Form W-2s and other tax information. These are Business Email Compromise (BEC) or Business Email Spoofing (BES). This is particularly true with many businesses closed and their employees working from home due to COVID-19. Currently, two of the most common types of these scams are the gift card scam and the direct deposit scam.
Gift card scam. In the gift card scam, a compromised email account is often used to send a request to purchase gift cards in various denominations.
Direct deposit scam. In the direct deposit scheme, the fraudster may have access to the victim’s email account (also known as an email account compromise or “EAC”). They may also impersonate the potential victim to have the organization change the employee’s direct deposit information to reroute their deposit to an account the fraudster controls.
BEC/BES scams have used a variety of ploys to include requests for wire transfers, payment of fake invoices as well as others. In recent years, the IRS has observed variations of these scams where fake IRS documents are used to lend legitimacy to the bogus request. For example, a fraudster may attempt a fake invoice scheme and use what appears to be a legitimate IRS document to help convince the victim.
The Direct Deposit and other BEC/BES variations should be forwarded to the Federal Bureau of Investigation Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) where a complaint can be filed. The IRS requests that Form W-2 scams be reported to firstname.lastname@example.org (Subject: W-2 Scam).
Ransomware is malware targeting human and technical weaknesses to infect a potential victim’s computer, network, or server and is a rapidly growing cybercrime. It doesn’t just affect individuals either. Recently, Garmin Ltd., a GPS, and fitness-tracker company was the victim of a ransomware attack and asked to pay $10 million in “ransom” to restore its systems.
Malware is a form of invasive software that is often frequently inadvertently downloaded by the user. Once downloaded, it tracks keystrokes and other computer activity. Once infected, ransomware looks for and locks critical or sensitive data with its encryption. In some cases, entire computer networks can be adversely impacted.
Victims generally aren’t aware of the attack until they try to access their data, or they receive a ransom request in the form of a pop-up window. These criminals don’t want to be traced so they frequently use anonymous messaging platforms and demand payment in virtual currency such as Bitcoin.
Cybercriminals might use a phishing email to trick a potential victim into opening a link or attachment containing the ransomware. These may include email solicitations to support a fake COVID-19 charity. Cybercriminals also look for system vulnerabilities where human error is not needed to deliver their malware.
If you think you’ve been a victim of a tax scam, please contact the office immediately.
Exiting a Business: Which Option Is Right for You?
Selecting your business successor is a fundamental objective when planning your exit strategy and requires a careful assessment of what you want from the sale of your business and who can best give it to you.
There are only four ways to leave your business and the more you understand about each one, the better the chance is that you will leave your business on your terms and under the conditions you want. With that in mind, here’s what you need to know about each option:
1. Liquidate It
In a liquidation the owners sell off their assets, collect outstanding accounts receivable, pay off their bills, and keep what’s left, if anything, for themselves. The primary reason liquidation is considered as an exit plan is that a business lacks sufficient income-producing capacity apart from the owner’s direct efforts and apart from the value of the assets themselves. For example, if the business can produce only $75,000 per year and the assets themselves are worth $1 million, no one would pay more for the business than the value of the assets.
Service businesses in particular are thought to have little value when the owner leaves the business. Since most service businesses have little “hard value” other than accounts receivable, liquidation produces the smallest return for the owner’s lifelong commitment to the business. Smart owners guard against this. They plan ahead to ensure that they do not have to rely on this last-ditch method to fund their retirement.
2. Sell It to A Third Party
While a sale to a third party too often becomes a bargain sale – and sometimes the only alternative to liquidation – this option just might be your best way to cash out if the business is well prepared for sale. In fact, you may find that this so-called “last resort” strategy just happens to land you at the resort of your choice.
Although many owners don’t realize it, most or all of your money should come from the business at closing. Therefore, the fundamental advantage of a third-party sale is immediate cash or at least a substantial up-front portion of the selling price. This ensures that you obtain your fundamental objectives of financial security and, perhaps, avoid risk as well.
A second unanticipated advantage in selling to a third party is the ability to frequently receive substantially more cash than your CPA or other business appraiser anticipated because the market place is “hot.” Finally, this may be the best option for a business that is too valuable to be purchased by anyone other than someone who has access to a considerable source of money.
If you do not receive the bulk of the purchase price in cash, at closing, however, your risk will suddenly become immense. You will place a substantial amount of the money you counted on receiving in the unpredictable hands of fate. The best way to avoid this risk is to get all of the money you are going to need at closing. This way any outstanding balance payable to you is “icing on the cake.”
3. Transfer of Ownership to Your Children
While most business owners want to transfer their business to their children, few end up doing so for various reasons. There are however, advantages that are worth considering. For example, transferring your business to your children can provide financial well-being for younger family members unable to earn comparable income from outside employment, as well as allow you to stay actively involved in the business with your children until you choose your departure date. It also affords you the luxury of selling the business for whatever amount of money you need to live on, even if the value of the business does not justify that sum of money.
On the other hand, this option also holds the potential to increase family friction, discord, and feelings of unequal treatment among siblings. Parents often feel the need to treat all of their children equally. In reality, this is difficult to achieve. In most cases, one child will probably run or own the business at the perceived expense of the others.
At the same time, financial security also may be diminished, rather than enhanced, and the very existence of the business is at risk if it’s transferred to a family member who can’t or won’t run it properly. In addition, family dynamics in general, may also significantly diminish your control over the business and its operations.
4. Employee Stock Option Plans (ESOP)
If your children have no interest or are unable to take over your business, there’s another option to ensure the continued success of your business: The Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP).
ESOPs are qualified retirement plans subject to the regulatory requirements of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). There’s one important difference however; the majority (more than half) of their investment must be derived from their own company stock.
Whether it’s due to lack of interest on your children’s part, an economic downturn or a high asking price that no one is willing to pay, what an ESOP does is create a third-party buyer (your employees) where none previously existed. After all, who more than your employees have a vested interest in your company?
ESOPs are set up as a trust (complete with trustees) into which either cash to buy company stock or newly issued stock is placed. Contributions the company makes to the trust are generally tax deductible, subject to certain limitations and because transactions are considered stock sales, the owner who is selling (you) can avoid paying capital gains. Shares are then distributed to employees (typically based on compensation levels) and grow tax free until distribution.
If your company is a stable, well-established one with steady, consistent earnings, then an ESOP might be just the ticket to creating a winning exit plan from your business.
If you need assistance figuring out which exit strategy is best for you and your business, please don’t hesitate to contact the office. The sooner you start planning, the easier it will be.
Protect Tax Records Before Disaster Strikes
As such, it’s always a good idea to plan for what to do in case of a disaster. Here are some simple steps you can take right now to prepare:
1. Backup Records Electronically. Many people receive bank statements by email. This is a good way to secure your records. You can also scan tax records and insurance policies onto an electronic format. You can use an external hard drive, CD, or DVD to store important records. Be sure you back up your files and keep them in a safe place. If a disaster strikes your home, it may also affect a wide area. If that happens you may not be able to retrieve your records.
2. Document Valuables. Take photos or videos of the contents of your home or business. These visual records can help you prove the value of your lost items. They may help with insurance claims or casualty loss deductions on your tax return. You should store them with a friend or relative who lives out of the area. The IRS has a disaster loss workbook, Publication 584, Casualty, Disaster, and Theft Loss Workbook (Personal-Use Property), which can help taxpayers compile a room-by-room list of belongings.
3. Update Emergency Plans. Review your emergency plans every year. Personal and business situations change over time as do preparedness needs, so update them when your situation changes. Make sure you have a way to get severe weather information and have a plan for what to do if threatening weather approaches. In addition, when employers hire new employees or when a company or organization changes functions, plans should be updated accordingly and employees should be informed of the changes.
4. Get Copies of Tax Returns or Transcripts. Use Form 4506, Request for Copy of Tax Return, to replace lost or destroyed tax returns or need information from your return. You can also file Form 4506T-EZ, Short Form Request for Individual Tax Return Transcript or Form 4506-T, Request for Transcript of Tax Return. If you need assistance filling this form out, please call.
5. Check on Fiduciary Bonds. Employers who use payroll service providers should ask the provider if it has a fiduciary bond in place. The bond could protect the employer in the event of default by the payroll service provider.
If you fall victim to a disaster, help is just a phone call away. Don’t hesitate to call the office regarding any disaster-related tax questions or issues you might have.
Filing an Amended Tax Return
If you discover a mistake on your tax return after you’ve already filed, don’t panic. In most cases, all you have to do is file an amended tax return. Here’s what you need to know:
Taxpayers should use Form 1040X, Amended U.S. Individual Income Tax Return, to file an amended (corrected) tax return. An amended tax return should only be filed to correct errors or make changes to your original tax return. For example, you should amend your return if you need to change your filing status or correct your income, deductions, or credits.
Currently, an amended return cannot be e-filed. Taxpayers should be able to file Form 1040-X electronically soon, according to a recent IRS news release, but only for tax year 2019 (Forms 1040 and 1040-SR). In the meantime, you must file the corrected tax return on paper. If you need to file another schedule or form, don’t forget to attach it to the amended return. In general, taxpayers will still have the option to submit a paper version of the Form 1040-X and should follow the instructions for preparing and submitting the paper form.
Taxpayers filing Form 1040X in response to an IRS notice, should mail it to the address shown on the notice.
You normally do not need to file an amended return to correct math errors because the IRS automatically makes those changes for you. Also, do not file an amended return because you forgot to attach tax forms, such as W-2s or schedules. The IRS normally will mail you a request asking for those.
If you are amending more than one tax return, prepare a separate 1040X for each return and mail them to the IRS in separate envelopes. Note the tax year of the return you are amending at the top of Form 1040X. You will find the appropriate IRS address to mail your return to in the Form 1040X instructions.
If you are filing an amended tax return to claim an additional refund, wait until you have received your original tax refund before filing Form 1040X. Amended returns take up to 16 weeks to process. You may cash your original refund check while waiting for the additional refund.
If you owe additional taxes file Form 1040X and pay the tax as soon as possible to minimize interest and penalties on unpaid taxes. You can use IRS Direct Pay to pay your tax directly from your checking or savings account.
Generally, you must file Form 1040X within three years from the date you filed your original tax return or within two years of the date you paid the tax, whichever is later. For example, the last day for most people to file a 2017 claim for a refund is April 15, 2021. Special rules may apply to certain claims. Please call the office if you would like more information about this topic.
You can track the status of your amended tax return for the current year three weeks after you file. You can also check the status of amended returns for up to three prior years. To use the “Where’s My Amended Return” tool on the IRS website, just enter your taxpayer identification number (usually your Social Security number), date of birth, and zip code. If you have filed amended returns for more than one year, you can select each year individually to check the status of each.
Don’t hesitate to call if you need assistance filing an amended return or have any questions about Form 1040X.
Tax Breaks for Teachers and Educators
While many schools are switching to hybrid or remote learning models, teachers and other educators should remember that they can still deduct certain unreimbursed expenses such as classroom supplies, training, and travel. Deducting these expenses helps reduce the amount of tax owed when filing a tax return.
To qualify for the deduction, the taxpayer must be a kindergarten through grade 12 teacher, instructor, counselor, principal, or aide. They must also work at least 900 hours a school year in a school that provides elementary or secondary education as determined under state law.
Teachers and other educators can also take advantage of various education tax benefits for ongoing educational pursuits such as the Lifetime Learning Credit or, in some instances depending on their circumstances, the American Opportunity Tax Credit.
How the Educator Expense Deduction Works
Educators can deduct up to $250 of unreimbursed business expenses. If both spouses are eligible educators and file a joint return, they may deduct up to $500, but not more than $250 each. The educator expense deduction is available even if an educator doesn’t itemize their deductions. To take advantage of this deduction, the taxpayer must be a kindergarten through grade 12 teacher, instructor, counselor, principal or aide for at least 900 hours during a school year in a school that provides elementary or secondary education as determined under state law.
Those who qualify can deduct costs of books, supplies, computer equipment, and software, classroom equipment, and supplementary materials used in the classroom. Expenses for participation in professional development courses are also deductible. Athletic supplies qualify if used for courses in health or physical education.
Keep Good Records
Educators should keep detailed records of qualifying expenses noting the date, amount, and purpose of each purchase. This will help prevent a missed deduction at tax time. Taxpayers should also keep a copy of their tax returns for at least three years. Copies of tax returns may be needed for many reasons. A tax transcript summarizes return information and includes adjusted gross income and available free of charge from the IRS.
Don’t hesitate to call if you have any questions about tax deduction available to educators including teachers, administrators, and aides.