Be prepared for social engineering scams this tax return season

Issue 1 2022 Information Security

As people get ready to file their taxes in many parts of the world, cybercriminals are getting ready too. Tax-return time is open season for cybercrime, and it's likely to be worse this year because so many people are still working from home on various devices connected to unsecured networks.

Aamir Lakhani.

Although cybercriminals use other sophisticated tactics to steal information, social engineering scams are low-hanging fruit, especially during tax season. Fortunately, everybody can take steps to avoid falling victim to a social engineering scam.

Watch out for these social engineering attacks

Cybercriminals are out in force, eager to prey on the stress and uncertainty surrounding tax season. Attacks may take the form of phishing email campaigns or phone calls from people claiming to be from SARS or a collection agency. To appear legitimate, scammers may use stolen data with personal information, such as ID numbers.

Cybercriminals use a 'spray-and-pray' model for phishing campaigns. They send thousands of emails, hoping that at least one person will fall victim to the attack. Spear-phishing attacks are a targeted form of phishing that can be more difficult to detect because the emails are personalised to appear as if they were sent by someone the recipient knows. In the past, spear phishing was challenging to implement, but now some advanced cybercriminals use machine learning and artificial intelligence to execute these attacks more efficiently.

Who is the most vulnerable to social engineering attacks?

During tax season, the prime targets for tax refund scams are foreign work permit holders, small business owners, new taxpayers under the age of 25 and older taxpayers over 60. Cybercriminals assume these people may be less informed about tax policies and what to expect, so they may be more vulnerable to emotional manipulation. For example, the scammer may claim that the potential victim has missed an important tax deadline and pressure the victim to act quickly.

How to protect yourself against tax refund scams

If you know what to look for and how to handle suspect emails or phone calls, you can avoid becoming a victim of tax season social engineering attacks. Here are a few tips for effectively defending against social engineering attacks:

• Look for grammatical issues and typos. Often, phishing emails contain errors that are easy to spot. If a message includes several spelling or grammar errors, odds are good that it is not legitimate.

• Be sceptical. Always consider any unexpected emails or phone calls claiming to be from SARS or other governmental agencies to be suspect. If you are concerned about the legitimacy of a sender or caller, don’t give the person any information. Instead, contact SARS or the governmental agency directly to verify the caller's identity.

• Don’t share personal information. Don’t give out your ID number or credit card information over the phone or via email. Scammers may pressure you to do so and try to convince you that something terrible will happen if you don’t act immediately. Hang up or delete the email.

• Warn family and friends who may be vulnerable to attacks. Share cybersecurity information with others and encourage them to get educated. The Fortinet NSE Training Institute offers cybersecurity awareness training that covers key cybersecurity terms, the motivations behind cybercrime, attack methods and protection tactics.

• Use technology to help prevent attacks. Secure email gateway (SEG) solutions such as FortiMail can protect all inbound and outbound email traffic. Like other Fortinet products, FortiMail integrates seamlessly with the Fortinet Security Fabric and is backed by FortiGuard Labs. FortiClient is an advanced endpoint protection solution with a built-in VPN client and zero-trust network access. It connects an endpoint such as a laptop with the Security Fabric and delivers integrated endpoint and network security.

Although tax-return season can be stressful, knowing the signs of a social engineering attack can keep you from becoming a victim. Fortinet made all of its self-paced online courses from the Fortinet Training Institute available for free to all starting at the beginning of 2020.

Learn more at

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