What to Know
Californians have lost $10 million to IRS impersonation scams
The IRS will not contact you by phone or email
California accountants and tax preparers must be licensed, and you can check their credentials online
As millions of Americans file their taxes, sophisticated crooks are aiming to steal from hard-working taxpayers.
You've likely heard of the IRS phone scam. You may have even been a target yourself: a mysterious caller claiming to be an IRS agent tries to convince you that you're in big trouble with the U.S. government.
California-based IRS spokesman Raphael Tulino said these scammers rely on intimidation. "They're threatening arrest; they're threatening a lawsuit; they're threatening other things," Tulino said.
The only way to avoid arrest or a lawsuit, the scammer will tell you, is to pay them immediately - often with gift cards, a wire transfer or other dubious means.
Unfortunately, it often works. Californians have been conned out of at least $10 million to IRS agent impersonators, more than any other state, according to the Treasury Department.
Taxpayers should ignore any calls or emails claiming to be from the agency, Tulino said. "The IRS does not send uninitiated emails," he said. "We do not make random, threatening phone calls out of the blue. First correspondence with the IRS is normally a letter in the mail."
The IRS will never demand you pay by wire transfer, gift cards or prepaid debit cards. They won't ask for credit card information over the phone. If you get a call or email you suspect is coming from a fraudster, you can report it with the U.S. Treasury Inspector General.
Another scheme on the IRS "Dirty Dozen" tax scam list for 2018: fax tax preparers. Taxpayers should be especially cautious when hiring someone to take care of their taxes.
Ruth Godfrey with the National Society of Accountants offered some practical advice: "You wouldn't go to a hot dog vendor for medical advice, hopefully," she said. "You shouldn't be taking tax advice from a non-tax professional."
Californians are protected by a state law that licenses tax preparers, according to Godfrey. "In California, if you're going to charge a fee for doing a tax return, you have to have a valid credential," she said.
You can check the credentials of any tax preparer yourself at the California Tax Education Council website.
If you're doing your own taxes, make sure the software you're using is IRS approved. If your household income is under $66,000, you can use "Free File" software at IRS.gov. For households with income over $66,000, there's an option to file for free, but you'll need to fill out the forms yourself.
You'll also need to make sure your internet connection is secure, with up-to-date anti-virus software on your computer.
The deadline to file your taxes this year is April 17. That's because April 15 falls on a Sunday, and April 16 is a holiday for federal employees in Washington. And if you can't pay what you owe the IRS by Tax Day, click here for resources from our partners at CNBC.