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25 Jan 2020

How to spot the biggest HMRC tax scam tactics

Nearly 200,000 scam phone calls were reported to HMRC last year
Sign outside the HMRC offices in Whitehall, London

With the self-assessment deadline looming, scammers are ready to target unwitting taxpayers by impersonating HMRC in a variety of ways.

If you are one of the 11.7 million that need to fill out a self-assessment tax return this year, these scams can seem all the more realistic.

In 2019, HMRC received almost 200,000 reports of suspicious phone calls, a huge increase on the roughly 60,000 from 2018.

HMRC scams tend to take one of two forms: messages telling you about a rebate, or messages warning that you've missed a deadline. These sometimes include threats of police action.

Fraudsters' tactics are increasingly sophisticated, making them all too easy to fall for. To help you stay alert, Which? explains common scammer tactics and what you can do to avoid them.

Email scams

Your junk folder may already be filled with fake emails purporting to be from HMRC. But sometimes, these can make it past spam filters.

A fake HMRC email may tell you you're due a tax refund and urge you to click a link to claim it.

source: gov.uk

HMRC says it will never contact people by email about tax refunds. HMRC emails tend not to include links, instead, they generally tell you to sign into your HMRC online account to read a message.

Don't click any links you see in an HMRC email - if it is a fake email, the links will likely take you to fake websites that will steal your data. This is known as phishing.

If you do receive a suspicious email from HMRC, report it to phishing@hmrc.gov.uk and then delete it. Even if it was real, genuine updates you need from HMRC will also be in your online account.

Bogus texts

HMRC received 57,579 reports of SMS fraud last year. An increase on the 36,950 reported in 2018.

When you receive a text from a company or organisation, that brand's name will usually show up as the sender. Unfortunately, scammers can abuse this system to make it appear that their texts, too, are from these organisations.

Some are even able to hijack real text chains with fake messages, as seen in the example below. The tactic is called 'number spoofing', and it is widely used by fraudsters.

HMRC says it will never ask for personal or financial information in text messages, and that you should never reply to a message claiming to offer you a refund, nor should you open any links. This is the SMS form of phishing, known as 'smishing'.

source: gov.uk

Fake phone calls

Fake HMRC phone calls are widespread. There were 195,720 reports of these calls in 2019.

These usually take the form of automated messages read out by a machine, claiming HMRC is filing a lawsuit against you or that there's a warrant out for your arrest.

Which? has heard one recording that claimed to be from a police officer, despite the fact that it was clearly an automated 'text-to-speech' computer speaking.

This scam often targets elderly and vulnerable people, attempting to scare them into paying or parting with their details.

The clips below show the kind of thing you can expect from these calls.

Though they can sound scary, not least because of the cold, robotic voice, you can safely ignore calls like these and report them to phishing@hmrc.gov.uk.

If a human being calls you claiming to be from HMRC, don't give them your details. Instead, hang up and get in touch with HMRC yourself if you think it might need to contact you.

Thanks to technology implemented in April last year, it's impossible for scammers to 'spoof' HMRC's well-known 0300 helpline numbers. Since then, there has been a 94% reduction of phone scams spoofing these numbers.

An HMRC spokesperson said: “If someone calls you claiming to be from HMRC saying that you will be arrested, that we are filing a lawsuit against you, or even that you are owed a tax refund, and asks for information such as your name, credit card or bank details, then it's a scam.”

WhatsApp and social media messages

There have been reports of people receiving messages on WhatsApp and Twitter offering HMRC refunds.

HMRC has confirmed that it never uses WhatsApp or social media to contact people about tax refunds or ask for personal or financial information.

  • For more information on all these scams, and examples of what they might look like, visit HMRC's phishing examples page on gov.uk.