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HMRC scams double in a year - the four biggest threats to watch out for

The tax authority responded to more than one million scam reports in the past 12 months

HMRC has detected more than 450 Covid financial support scams, responded to more than one million reports of suspicious contact and reported more than 13,000 malicious web pages in the past year.

The tax authority's recent scam statistics show tax-related scams have continued to rise during the pandemic, roughly doubling in 12 months.

Fraudsters often try to mimic HMRC's messages so they look authentic - be it through scam phone calls or fake web pages - as victims are more likely to transfer money to an institution they recognise and trust.

Here, Which? reveals the most common ways scammers are trying to commit tax scams and how to protect yourself from them.

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Biggest HMRC tax scams to watch out for

In the year from August 2020 to July 2021, HMRC identified millions of instances of HMRC scams, in various guises. Here are some of the most common:

HMRC phone scams

HMRC responded to 441,954 phone scams, which was up 117% on the previous year. In July 2021 alone, there were 12,037 phone scam reports.

Phone scams can take many forms, the most common being automated messages telling you a warrant is out for your arrest due to not paying enough tax. While this may sound scary, HMRC never issues this kind of warning, so it's always best to just hang up if you receive one of these calls.

Number spoofing can also happen. This is when a scam caller manages to appear as though a genuine HMRC phone number is calling you. This tactic can be very convincing, but if the person on the other end starts asking for your bank details or other personal information, it's also best just to hang up.

Bogus tax rebates

HMRC responded to 463,457 reports of suspicious contact from the public offering bogus tax rebates in the past year.

HMRC doesn't contact anyone by text or email about tax rebates, so any messages you receive about this will be fake.

Similarly, HMRC will never ask for you to click on a link to fill out your bank details online in order to receive a rebate.

If you are owed a tax rebate, you'll be asked to log in to your online tax account, where HMRC will have sent genuine communication about it.

The topic of tax rebates has also come under the spotlight recently, when Which? issued an alert about a copycat marriage allowance claims site being advertised on Google. Not strictly scams, these unofficial claims services can take up to 40% of the tax rebate you're owed along with extra admin fees.

Malicious web pages

More than 13,316 malicious web pages were reported by HMRC, with instructions for them to be taken down.

These web pages might clone or copy HMRC's official pages, or might pretend to be officially affiliated with the tax authority.

Look out for paid-for ads that appear at the top of search engine results, as some scammers purposely target HMRC-related search terms.

Covid-19 financial support scams

With the government's furlough scheme and self-employed income support schemes helping millions of employed and self-employed workers over the past 18 months, scammers soon cottoned on to people's money worries.

We heard one instance of a scam text message telling a victim they qualify for financial support, asking for personal information to confirm their application. Months later, they discovered the fraudsters had used their details to fill out a fake tax return and pocket a £7,000 refund from HMRC.

Other scams include telling victims they qualify for 'goodwill payments', later asking for their bank details. Of course, the only people to receive any money were the scammers.

What to do if you've been scammed

Unfortunately, many of these scams are successful. If you find that you've been scammed, there are ways of getting your money back.

Most commonly, fraudsters will either try to convince you to transfer money to their accounts or ask for your bank details so they can make the transfers themselves.

This is a bank transfer scam - also known as an Authorised Push Payment (APP) scam - you should contact your bank immediately to let them know what happened, along with the details of where the money was sent to.

If your bank is signed up to the voluntary Authorised Push Payment Scam Code, it has to take a number of steps to protect customers and reimburse those who aren't to blame for the financial loss.

You should also alert the authorities by contacting Action Fraud, or if you're in Scotland call the police on 101.

Finally, it's important to report the scam in order to protect other people from becoming victims.

For HMRC scams, the tax authority has several ways of reporting these directly. You can email phishing@hmrc.gov.uk, text 60599 or fill out a suspicious phone call reporting form on gov.uk.

Our guide can also help with advice on how to report scams to warn others.

How to protect yourself from tax scams

Criminals usually design scams to steal your money or your personal information, which they then sell on to others.

If you're not sure whether an email, phone call, text or website is genuinely from HMRC, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is the contact unexpected?
  • Have you been offered a refund, rebate or financial support?
  • Have you been asked to provide personal information?
  • Is the correspondence threatening?
  • Have you been asked to transfer money?

If you answer 'yes' to any of these questions, stop what you're doing and either hang up the phone, delete the text message or close the website.

If you want to check whether HMRC has been in touch with you, you can call the helpline directly on 0300 200 3300or go directly to gov.uk (not via a search engine).