The Internal Revenue Service warned taxpayers Tuesday to beware of a quickly proliferating scam involving erroneous tax refunds being deposited in their bank accounts, after a data breach on their tax preparers' computers gives them access to sensitive client information.
The IRS also provided taxpayers with a step-by-step explanation for how they can return the funds and avoid falling prey to the scammers.
The new alert follows up on a Security Summit alert that came out earlier this month warning tax professionals about phishing emails that can download malware onto computers if they are clicked (see IRS sees new filing season scam hitting tax pros). The IRS released the extra warning Tuesday about the new scheme after learning that more tax practitioners’ computer files have been breached. On top of that, the number of potential taxpayer victims jumped from a few hundred to several thousand in only a few days. The IRS’s Criminal Investigation division is continuing to investigate the expanding scope and breadth of this scheme.
Basically this is a new twist on an old scam, the IRS noted. After the cybercriminals steal client data from tax professionals and file fraudulent tax returns, they use the taxpayers' real bank accounts for the deposit. Thieves then employ various tactics to reclaim the refund from taxpayers.
The scam is continuing to evolve in new versions. In one version, the criminals impersonate debt collection agency officials acting on behalf of the IRS. They contact taxpayers to tell them a tax refund was deposited in error and ask taxpayers to send the money to their collection agency.
In another version, the taxpayer who received the erroneous refund receive an automated phone call with a recorded voice saying he is from the IRS and threatens the taxpayer with criminal fraud charges, an arrest warrant and a “blacklisting” of their Social Security Number. The recorded voice provides the taxpayer with a case number and a phone number to call to give back the mistaken refund.
The IRS repeated its warning from last week for tax professionals to increase the security of their sensitive client tax and financial files. The IRS is also asking taxpayers to follow the established procedures for returning an erroneous refund to the Service. The IRS wants taxpayers to discuss the issue with their financial institutions because there may be a need to close bank accounts. Taxpayers who get erroneous refunds also should contact their tax preparers immediately.
As this is now peak season for filing returns, taxpayers who file electronically could find their tax return has been rejected because another return with their Social Security number is already on file. If that happens, taxpayers should follow the steps detailed in the Taxpayer Guide to Identity Theft. Taxpayers who can’t file electronically should mail a paper tax return along with Form 14039, Identity Theft Affidavit, telling the IRS they were victims of a tax preparer data breach. Taxpayers who receive the refunds should follow the steps in Tax Topic Number 161 - Returning an Erroneous Refund. It includes the mailing addresses in case they to return paper checks to the IRS. By law, the IRS noted, interest may accrue on erroneous refunds.
The National Association of Enrolled Agents asked its tax experts the best practices clients should follow when working with a tax professional, and gave some helpful advice from an online survey whose results were released Monday.
Twenty percent of the enrolled agents surveyed by the NAEA strongly agreed with the notion that all clients should sort their documents using an organizer or organizing system provided by their tax professional, while 21 percent agreed with the statement that “it is impractical to expect new clients to organize their materials using the system with which I am most comfortable.”
However, 47 percent strongly agreed with the statement, “I work more effectively with clients who are willing to learn and adjust the way they organize their documents so that I can serve them better.” In addition, 51 percent strongly agree that taxpayers should schedule an appointment with tax professionals early in the filing season to avoid undesirable outcomes.
“Your willingness to adapt the way you organize your tax documents will help you get the best result from your work with a tax professional, often at a lower cost,” said NAEA President James Adelman in a statement. “Have a conversation with your tax professional at the outset to clarify expectations and preferences on all sides.”
Eighty-three percent of tax pros said clients should use separate bank accounts for business and personal funds, while 81 percent recommended clients should keep their receipts in case their tax returns are examined, and 75 percent said clients should use a mileage log or smartphone app to record the business miles they have driven.
Identifying preferred communication channels and technologies is crucial, along with respecting deadlines and sharing time-sensitive information promptly are also essential. Ninety-six percent of the enrolled agents polled said clients should notify tax pros as soon as they receive a letter or notice from the IRS, while 82 percent said they should tell tax pros about significant life changes such as a retirement or divorce. Eighty percent said clients should consult with tax pros before starting a side job, while 78 percent said clients shouldn’t respond to notices from the IRS without consulting a tax pro.
Enrolled agents prefer to maintain a professional relationship with clients. The survey found 83 percent of the enrolled agents polled agreeing with the statement that advice from tax pros may be quite different from the tips that clients get from friends. Seventy percent of tax pros said their clients should not expect to get the same refund that a neighbor or coworker told them they had received, while 69 percent said “same as last year” is not an acceptable answer to questions from tax pros. In addition, 60 percent said tax pros cannot tell clients how the new tax bill impact their 2018 taxes until they run the numbers, while 52 percent agreed that a “quick question” a client asks a tax pro rarely has a quick or simple answer.
President Donald Trump’s corporate tax cuts are already having a big impact.
The main takeaway at the halfway point of earnings season is that corporations are going to make more money—lots more—as their statutory tax rate gets axed to 21 percent from 35 percent. Corporate chiefs already are making plans for the windfall, with some detailing specific investments in infrastructure or technology along with their one-time charges and benefits.
So far a record 75 percent of companies have raised their profit guidance, according to strategists at JPMorgan Chase & Co. Taking into account the benefits of lower corporate taxes, Wall Street expects U.S. firms to increase capital expenditures by as much as 6.8 percent this year—more than five times the projected growth in 2017.
There are other needs too beyond capital spending: Higher pay for workers in a tight labor market, balance-sheet repair and returns to investors through buybacks and dividends. Many of the big announcements so far represent multiyear plans with big headline numbers but only broadly sketched details.
Citing the lower tax rate, AT&T Inc. said free cash flow this year will surge almost 20 percent to $21 billion, giving the phone carrier more financial flexibility.
The telecom giant had already announced it would invest an additional $1 billion in the U.S., helping the company prepare for the transition to a new fifth-generation mobile network, and give $1,000 bonuses to workers, thanks to reforms that Chief Executive Officer Randall Stephenson called “capital freeing.”
Chief Financial Officer John Stephens also made clear the company sees reform strengthening AT&T’s financial position. “We see a significant boost to our balance sheet, reducing $20 billion of liabilities and increasing shareholder equity by a like amount,” he said last week on a call.
Lockheed Martin Corp., the world’s largest defense contractor, is earmarking some of its expected windfall for pensioners. The company plans to contribute $5 billion in cash, satisfying its required obligations until 2021.
The company is also increasing its commitment to initiatives like employee training, charitable contributions for education in science and math, and the Lockheed Martin Ventures fund by $200 million, CEO Marillyn Hewson said on a call.
Lockheed projects earnings will more than double this year to $15.50 a share, buoyed by the U.S. tax cuts and higher deliveries of its F-35 Lightning II fighter jet.
Merck & Co. expects its tax rate will fall to about 20 percent from 35 percent, providing added flexibility for major capital expenditures, in addition to research and development.
The drugmaker expects to spend $12 billion over five years, including $8 billion in the U.S., with oncology, vaccines and animal health targeted for investment, CFO Rob Davis said on a call. Merck will also pay one-time bonuses to some of its 69,000 employees.
Priorities also include the dividend, business development deals and repurchases, to the extent possible.
Merck finished the year with $21 billion in cash, and plans to repatriate about $17 billion over time. The proceeds will be invested in the company, its dividend, and remaining money will go toward deals and share repurchases.
AbbVie Inc., maker of the top-selling drug Humira, plans to spend $2.5 billion on capital projects in the U.S. as a result of tax reform and is evaluating expansion of its U.S. facilities, according to CEO Richard Gonzalez. The drugmaker also will accelerate pension funding by $750 million and increase non-executive pay, though it didn’t provide details.
AbbVie said on Jan. 26 its tax rate will plummet to 9 percent this year. It was 19 percent in 2017. As a result the company boosted its annual profit guidance to as much as $7.43 a share, a 13 percent jump.
“U.S. tax reform enables more efficient access to our foreign cash, and the ability to deploy it in the United States,” Gonzalez said on the call.
Roche Holding AG’s tax rate will drop from 26.6 percent last year to the low 20 percent range. The tax cut means core earnings per share will rise by a high single-digit rate this year; without the reduction, earnings might have been little changed. The drugmaker didn’t announce any increase in investment.
“We do benefit from the U.S. tax reform,” Severin Schwan, CEO of Roche, said in a conference call. “We have been one of the biggest taxpayers in the United States.”
Diageo Plc, British American Tobacco Plc and Societe Generale SA also said the tax law would lower their rates. Lenovo Group Ltd. posted a surprise loss after taking a $400 million charge related to the tax-law changes, while adding that its U.S. operations may benefit from a lower rate in the longer term.
The Big Gorilla
The company with the biggest decision to make is Apple Inc., with a net cash position of $163 billion—the sum of its $285 billion cash hoard and debt of $122 billion. Apple’s aim is to reduce that to zero and will announce more specific plans when it reviews results for the current quarter ending in March, Chief Financial Officer Luca Maestri said on a call.
“When you look at our track record of what we’ve done over the last several years, you’ve seen that effectively we were returning to our investors essentially about 100 percent of our free cash flow,” Maestri said. “And so that is the approach that we’re going to be taking.”
Last quarter, Apple paid $3.34 billion in dividends and repurchased more than $10 billion of its stock.
The company had no difficulty financing acquisitions before tax reform, he said, and doesn’t see any now, either. Apple made 19 acquisitions last year.
“It’s always the customer experience in mind, right, that we make acquisitions,” Maestri said. “We look at all sizes and we will continue to do so.”
—With assistance from Jing Cao, Mark Gurman, Blaise Robinson, Jared S. Hopkins, Julie Johnsson, Caroline Chen, Brandon Kochkodin, Phil Serafino and Scott Moritz