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E-filing? Beware of ‘phishing’ scams

As April 17 approaches — and with more than half the nation's taxpayers now filing electronically — the IRS is worried about a new scam that's rapidly spreading through cyberspace.  NBC's Pete Williams reports.

After Meredith Capshaw of Indiana filed her taxes online, in came an official-looking e-mail she thought was from the IRS.

"It's the exact same logo," she says. "IRS, IRS. The logos are the same." 

So convincing, she almost fell for it.

"With me being sort of new to the tax process and definitely being new to e-filing, I thought, oh, OK, this is kind of new to me," Capshaw recalls. "Maybe I left out something." 

She doesn't know who got her e-mail address, but she was clearly part of a scam. The e-mails say the taxpayer is due a refund or offers a way to check when it will be paid. They include a link to an Internet site that appears to be the actual Internal Revenue Service Web page. But it's a phony, too. And here's the heart of the scam. The Web pages ask for personal information, especially Social Security and credit card numbers — even PIN numbers for ATM cards.

The IRS commissioner says the government would never send such a message.

"We don't contact taxpayers via e-mail," says commissioner Mark Everson. "We contact them sometimes by telephone, but usually in writing. So we just plain don't get in touch with anyone via e-mail, especially, on anything like refunds." 

It's the latest version of a scam called "phishing" that typically hits bank customers, casting out official-looking e-mails, trolling for victims. 

The number of phony Web sites is exploding, up nearly four times from just a year ago. According to the Anti-Phishing Working Group, there were 2,560 such sites in January 2005. In January 2006, the industry association counted 9,715.

At Symantec in California, Dave Cole is on the lookout for phishing e-mails. He says this scam is especially effective.

"The IRS is a very trusted institution, at least a very known, reputable institution," he says. "So they're using people's trust in the IRS, and their fear and excitement around the IRS, to their advantage."  

Meredith Capshaw didn't take the bait, but more e-mails just like it are waiting to lure unsuspecting taxpayers.