According to Citizens Advice, almost half of people in the UK have been targeted by a scam (which could be on the phone, by post or in person as well as electronic). And every year, more than three million people in this country fall victim to scammers, losing hundreds, sometimes thousands of pounds. Even if you think you’re pretty savvy, I bet there are times when you’re busy, distracted or just plain broke - and that moment of weakness is all the scammers are looking for.

Do I qualify for a tax refund?

Citizens Advise aims to create a self-supporting network of confident, alert consumers: People ready, willing and able to spot scams and spread the word. So here at RIFT we’re doing our bit by lifting the lid on a con trick that affects not just our customers but potentially every taxpayer in the UK: the tax refund scam.

If you're a RIFT customer already and you've had your yearly reminder, visit MyRIFT to fill in your information for your claim.

Sounds too good to be true?

We all pay tax, and most of us think we pay too much, so how tempting is it to be offered some of your money back? It's much more believable than winning a lottery you’ve never heard of, or an email from a foreign royal wanting to stash their millions in your bank account for safekeeping (honestly, some of the things they expect us to believe!)

In the six month period April – September 2014, almost 75,000 fake tax refund emails were reported to HM Revenue and Customs. Staggering but true, that’s a 70% increase on the same period last year. And Citizens Advice estimates that only 5% of all scams are reported.

What we do here at RIFT can sometimes sound too good to be true, but I assure you there is a world of difference between the genuine tax refunds that we offer and the bogus tax refunds that the scammers are trying to tempt you with. We’re always happy to explain what we’re claiming for and why we’re allowed to do it. Take a look at our web page on tax refund legislation for more on this. The scammers on the other hand are purely after your personal details so they can use them to raid your bank account or sell them on to criminal gangs. Bottom line: it’s identity theft.

Meet the worlds dumbest scammers

Sometimes it really isn’t that hard to spot a scam email. Here are some examples that have been sent to HMRC – and some tips on where they got it all wrong.

Example - tax refund scam email 1

Don’t be fooled by the HMRC logo – it's easy enough to rip a picture off a website, if you’re so inclined. The first mistake made by the scammers here was sending this by email at all. HMRC never (but never!) email or text you to say you’re due a tax refund. They will always write to you the old-fashioned way. The more people that know that, the better, so please tell your friends, get them to tell their friends and eventually no one will fall for this.

The second thing they got wrong is the sender’s address: “info171581@inbox.net“ doesn’t look like HMRC to me. Come on scammers, you haven’t even tried to make it look legit! HMRC email addresses always end @hmrc.gov.uk. Never @hmrc.co.uk, nor @hmrc.org.uk, nor anything else - certainly not @inbox.net.But beware: some scammers are a little bit clever and have worked out how to mask their address so it looks like @hmrc.gov.uk. Just refer to the above tip: if it’s an email about a tax refund, even if it’s from somebody@hmrc.gov.uk, it’s a fake.

Next mistake: trying too hard to be formal. “After the last annual calculation of your fiscal activity…” I’m sorry, my what? Governments have fiscal policy, so they might do “fiscal activity” (whatever that is), but I don’t.

Moving on, there are some very confusing instructions, for example, “click here by having your tax refund sent to your bank account in due time.” Say what you like about HMRC, but they’re professional enough to compose an email in correct English. The scammers have helped you out though, by providing a nice clear link that says “Get Started”. Er… get knotted! Don’t ever click on a link in a dodgy-looking email like this, not even for a laugh.

Example - tax refund scam web page

So now it looks more like you're shopping online. I thought they wanted your bank details, not your credit card! Again, don’t be fooled by the fact that it looks a bit like the HMRC website. This is easy enough to do, what a shame for them they didn’t think through the process.

A credit card will accept a refund against something you’ve actually purchased, but it’s not a bank account. I once had a refund put back on my credit card after I'd paid the bill. The bank wrote to me to “respectfully remind me not to put my account into credit” – straight up. Credit cards are for one-way traffic – money flows away from you, not back to you. So why do they need your card info? Because it’s easier to commit fraud with your credit card details than it is with your bank details.

In the next example, they’re offering to pay your tax refund into your PayPal account:

Example - tax refund scan email 2

Again, HMRC wouldn't email you about a tax refund, and they wouldn't pay you a refund through PayPal either. They’re old fashioned – they’d rather send you a cheque. Even if you’ve got a PayPal account there are plenty more reasons to be suspicious.

The greeting “Dear tax payer”. HMRC will never address you this way, they know your name. They also know your date of birth and your national insurance number. So if you’re asked for any of these, even for “verification” it’s a fake. If you call HMRC they'll use these details to check your identity, but they'll never ask for them in writing.

Never download an attachment in a dodgy-looking email, it’s probably carrying a virus. HMRC would never ask you to enter details into an attachment – again, the scammers are just after your details and hoping you’ll be distracted by the offer of a tax refund.

You may not be aware, but trust me, I’m well-placed to tell you that it’s currently taking HMRC upwards of four weeks to process a bona fide tax refund, so there’s no way they’re doing to do it in five days! Scammers: if you want to look realistic, don't be so impatient!

Finally there's the deadline. Scammers often make up a deadline to get you to rush into things without thinking about it. In reality you can claim a tax refund up to four years after the relevant tax year has closed.

Seen a scam? Report it!

So now you’ve seen the not-so-clever tricks the con men try to pull on us, could you spot a bogus tax refund email? If you get one of these, the first thing you should do is report it to HMRC here. Over six months in 2014 HMRC worked with other law enforcement agencies to shut down more than 4,000 websites that are responsible for sending out these emails. The more scams we report, the more sites they will shut down.

The second thing you should do is delete it (after you've had a little laugh to yourself if it’s a really flaky example).

Still not sure you can spot a dodgy tax refund email? You can always call RIFT, we’re here to help with any tax query, it’s all part of our service.

RIFT have been the UK's leading tax rebate and tax return experts since 1999.