Beware of this taxman scam!

If your tax return or payment is late, then the taxman will be on your tail. But not like this...

If your e-mail is anything like mine, then you need a decent spam filter. Otherwise, your inbox gets crammed full of spam: unwanted or junk electronic messages.

Scams and spam

While some spam is just rubbish advertising, a large proportion is very dangerous. For example, fake 'phishing' emails which appear to be sent by your bank. In fact, criminals use these fake emails to obtain your username and password. They then use these details to clean out your online current or savings account.

Spam Filter Review -- a reviewer of spam-filtering software -- claims that spam mostly consists of three things: 'pills, porn and poker'. From my experience, this is certainly true, although I would add fake watches, pirated software and, most importantly, financial scams to this list.

Sneaky but shabby

Roughly once a week, I check my Spam and Trash mailboxes to see what builds up in them. In the past two weeks, I've received lots of copies of this phishing email:

From: 'HM Revenue and Customs' <no-reply@hmrc.gov.uk>

Subject: Notice of Underreported Income

Taxpayer ID: XXX

Tax Type: INCOME TAX

Issue: Unreported/Underreported Income (Fraud Application)

Please review your tax statement on HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) website (click on the link below): review tax statement for taxpayer id: XXX

HM Revenue and Customs

Even the most cursory glance tells me that this email is fake. First, it's 'HM Revenue & Customs', not 'HM Revenue and Customs'. Second, the 'taxpayer ID' quoted certainly isn't mine. Third, since when has HMRC started sending out late-payment reminders by email? (Also, the pedant in me notes the grammatical errors: for example, 'underreported' should be hyphenated. Proof-reading spam emails makes me a total saddo...)

Of course, the whole email is a sneaky-but-shabby fake designed to get you to click on the embedded link. Instead of taking you to the HMRC website, the dodgy link takes you to an official-looking yet bogus copy of HMRC's home page.

I checked the link's true destination by right-clicking on it and then clicking on 'Properties'. Although online.hmrc.gov.uk forms part of this URL, it actually directs the user to one of dozens of fake websites specially created to handle this particular phishing scam.

While many phishing websites are fairly quickly located and blacklisted by anti-spam firms, they can still be dangerous to ill-prepared or inexperienced users. Therefore, never click on a link in an email to visit a financial or other website. Instead, always surf directly to an organisation's official site. For more information on dodging PC-based scams, read Spam, scams and cyber-crooks.

What HMRC really does

I repeat: you won't get any emails from HMRC warning you that your tax return is late, your payment is overdue, or you're being investigated for fraud. However, if you don't submit your self-assessment tax return online and pay any tax due by the deadline of 31 January each year, then you are automatically fined £100.

If your tax or return is still outstanding by 28 February, then a surcharge of 5% is added to your tax bill. On 31 July, another 5% is added to your tax. Further penalties for late payment can accrue after this date, including a £60-a-day fine for the worst offenders.

To sum up: complete your tax return and pay your bill by the due date in order to avoid unwanted fines. In addition, ignore any spurious emails claiming to be from HMRC, now matter how 'official' they may seem!

More: Visit the Get Safe Online and Bank Safe Online websites| Twelve tips to keep you safe online | How to spot a scam

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