The scam email problem is so common that it’s almost become a cliché. You receive an email from some individual in a far-flung country, offering a sizeable chunk of their ’lottery winnings’. All you need to do is give them a bit of help to get the money into the UK, and to do so, they just need your bank details. It’s an oldie-but-goodie, although that doesn’t stop the scammers from trying variations on it even now. But some more recent attempts have been a bit more subtle, and not so immediately recognisable for what they are.

Hardly a month goes by when one or other client of ours doesn’t forward an apparently urgent, official-looking, message to us which appears to have come from HMRC. Typically these start by mentioning that there’s been a ’review of their fiscal activity’ as a result of which the client needs to ’reclaim tax previously overpaid’ or something similar. The ending is, of course, that the client should ’follow the link’ and provide bank details in order to ’reclaim the tax owed to them’. Sound familiar?

giveaways to look out for

Earlier versions of this particular con were quite easy to spot. The first giveaway was the abysmal grammar of the text, not to mention the frequent spelling errors. Civil servants may no longer all be able to write as entertainingly as their predecessors, but presumably their word processing software comes with an English spelling check function? Another immediate give-away was that typical content would include reference to ’fiscal years’, which is not a phrase used very often, if at all, by accountants or tax officials in the UK. However, some of the recent attempts have looked more plausible good enough to make us look twice. Fortunately, in common with most professional firms, our IT systems do have some pretty-sophisticated malware filters. They have to, since we send and receive a vast amount of external email, and we have to safeguard the privacy and security of our own and our clients’ records. So even where the original text looks credible, we find that our systems have automatically blocked access to any attachments or links within the email message because there’s something ’dodgy’ included. That’s when we know that the email is junk and can simply be deleted without looking any further. Your email system may not be so secure especially if you do all of your emailing on a mobile phone.

We’re mentioning this again now because the next couple of months will see a peak in the amount of material relating to ’tax’ genuine and scam that anyone is likely to face, especially if they run their own business. For example, between now and the end of January, there will be countless reminders on TV, radio and billboards that millions of individuals need to file their self assessment tax returns with HMRC online by January 31, or face immediate fines. That gives the scammers an excellent opportunity to exploit the publicity and send their ’HMRC’ email with the instructions to just ’follow the link’. No sooner do we get past that date than the current (2013-14) tax year ends on April 5, meaning that there’ll be new tax return demands issued. Many limited companies have March 31 as their accounting reference date and so their corporation tax returns have to be filed by the end of December. And, of course, there are the usual VAT quarter-end dates, with a large proportion of businesses having December 31 as one of them.

simple facts to remember

So to avoid getting ripped off in this way, just remember a few very simple facts:

HMRC won’t ask you for personal or bank details in any email (the same goes for your bank or credit card issuer).

HMRC very rarely sends anything to taxpayers by email, other than perhaps an acknowledgement of something that you’ve already filed with them through their web portal.

Correspondence about your tax affairs is still through the old-fashioned Royal Mail, in the traditional manilla-coloured envelope, addressed to you by name, usually quoting your National Insurance number as part of the reference.

If HMRC wants to discuss your business tax matters, and you’ve already told them that you have an accountant then they’ll also automatically copy the letter to your accountant by old-fashioned post!

If you need to file any returns related to ’tax’ or ’VAT’ online, it is done through your own unique entry to the HMRC website. You need to set this up with HMRC in advance: they will allocate you a Unique Taxpayer Reference (UTR) and a week or so after you apply for online facilities, they will issue you with the appropriate details to enable you to log in and access the relevant services. This usually comes in the form of a letter.

The only links you’re likely to find in an official email will be to publications already in public access online not to your ’personal’ tax account.

If, by some chance, you really are owed a ’tax refund’ (which would be nice, of course) then your accountant should already be expecting it, and be aware of it directly from HMRC.

Refunds don’t just ’happen’ your accountant will have been working on the figures with the tax people for some time. You’ll receive notification of it by post.

HMRC almost certainly already knows the bank details that you’ve previously given them when setting up online services (such as VAT registration) so they won’t ask you to ’confirm’ or ’repeat’ them.

Some of the latest scam emails can initially look quite convincing, even down to the apparent email address from which they appear to have been sent but if you get one, just call your accountant and ask them whether they’ve had any correspondence from the Revenue about your tax affairs.

So, we wish you season’s greetings, and hope that you receive lots of presents but don’t expect one of them to be from the ’taxman’ via email!