Most of us fear something, and even those who claim to fear nothing dread the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). After all, an honest mistake in your taxes may lead to stiff fines and penalties, and jail time may be added if you don't pay your taxes intentionally. Fear of the "tax man" can be powerful, and some not-so-nice people know it. They're using that fear in an e-mail scam that may cause you to download a malicious virus to your computer.
Like most e-mail and other internet-based scams, the IRS scam is pretty simple. You get an e-mail message with the subject line that reads, "Underreported/Unreported Income," and it may include the phrase, "Fraud Application." The sender's email address makes it look as though the e-mail in fact came from the IRS. The fear sets in. You take a deep breath, and like any good and honest taxpayer, you open the e-mail.
The message tells you that you didn't report your income properly on your last income tax return. The fear worsens, and you immediately start wondering about fines and penalties. The e-mail also contains either an attachment or a link to a Web site that supposedly shows your "tax statement" and the error. You have to fix this problem, and quickly, so that maybe, hopefully the IRS goes easy on you.
When you open the attachment or follow the link, you activate a Trojan Horse-like virus that downloads to you computer. And you may not even know it until it's too late.
Trojan Horse viruses work by hiding in the software programs installed on your computer. The virus moves on to infect other files on your computer, and eventually all or most of your software and applications no longer work, or the computer simply shuts down and becomes useless. Like the famed Trojan Horse, a large, hollow statue that Greek soldiers hid inside until soldiers from Troy took inside the city walls. The Greeks jumped out and conquered the city.
Trojan viruses can do more than ruin your computer, too. Many of these viruses are designed to collect personal information stored on your computer, like passwords, bank information, and your social security number. The virus then sends that information to other computers (called "servers") where the person who made the virus can access it.
There are a number of things you can do to protect your computer and personal information. For safe computing, you should:
- Have an anti-virus program installed on your computer, and make sure it's running before you connect to the Internet or open e-mails
- Install a "firewall" in your computer. This stops hackers from gaining access to your computer and files
- Clean your computer regularly by scanning for viruses and other malicious files, like spyware
When it comes to e-mail:
- Don't open an e-mail or any attachments in the e-mail from people you don't know, and don't reply to it, either
- If you get suspicious e-mail, simply delete it, and if possible, mark the message as "Spam" or send it to your "Junk Mail" folder. That way any future messages from that e-mail address won't make it to your Inbox
- Report any suspicious e-mail to your e-mail provider (such as Hotmail and Yahoo), your employer's network administrator, or if the e-mail came from a business you're familiar with, contact it by phone or by a separate message and ask if the e-mail you received is legitimate
The IRS doesn't send unsolicited e-mails to taxpayers about their tax accounts. If there's a problem with your taxes, the IRS will contact you by letter through the US Mail. If you get an e-mail claiming to come from the IRS, don't open it and report it to the IRS by sending it to email@example.com.
Questions for Your Attorney
- I think someone got some of personal information from my computer. What should I do now?
- My computer crashed completely because of a virus, which the anti-virus software I bought didn't catch in time. Can we force the software company have to pay to have my computer fixed?
- Are the people who make and send viruses ever caught or arrested? Do they ever have to pay for the damage they've done?