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As a new scam starts doing the rounds, it’s worth reminding yourself to stay alert when you receive any call, text or email purporting to be from HMRC.

The (not very) funny thing about scams is that, on most days when you’ve got your wits about you, you could probably spot them a mile off. Of course, scammers aren’t targeting you on those days. They work on the basis that, if they try often enough with a sufficiently large pool of targets, they’ll catch the company directors, contractors and payroll people who are having a bad or insanely busy day, the ones who—just for a second—get caught with their guard down, and who then tap on a link or provide some private information without really thinking.

Office of Tax Simplification messages

Take the latest scam, which tries a slight variation on a well-worn theme. The correspondence says it comes from the Office of Tax Simplification (which is a real if rather ironic thing) and uses the correct OTS logo.

The communication demands payment of “tax”. The OTS doesn’t, however, collect tax. It advises the government on ways to reduce complexity. If you receive such a message from the OTS, don’t act on it.

How to spot a fraudulent HMRC communication

Although fraudsters like to vary their tactics, there are some common themes that should set alarm bells ringing:

Tax refunds: One of the most common scam tactics is to message you, tell you you’re due a tax refund and provide a link to access it. Scammers can ‘spoof’ numbers and email addresses, making it appear as though messages and emails are from HMRC.

What to do: HMRC does use text messaging and email, but it doesn’t contact customers about tax refunds in these ways. Don’t open the message. Don’t click on any link.

“Arrest” and “lawsuit”: Phone calls (automated or in person), and text messages threatening arrest or other legal action are common scam tactics, which work by panicking the recipient into acting quickly and without thinking.

What to do: HMRC does occasionally issue proceedings against companies and individuals that fail to pay tax, but if it gets to the point where an arrest warrant is required a) the police will do it, not HMRC and b) you’ll already be well aware that there’s an issue – you certainly wouldn’t get a message out of the blue. Report the message as below, but don’t click on any links or call any numbers in the message.

Lack of UTR: Every company and individual has a unique tax reference number (UTR). HMRC will use this in any official emails or automated messages.

What to do: HMRC may contact you about outstanding tax and may use automated messages but they’ll always use your UTR. Don’t assume that a message quoting a UTR is your UTR. Double check it against your records first.

The language is ‘off’: HMRC messages, whether by phone, mail or text, are simply worded. They’re designed to be read and understood by as many people as possible. Scam messages tend to use extremely officious, legal-sounding language as a scare tactic.

What to do: If the message sounds threatening or complicated, check the UTR is yours. You could also call HMRC using the number given on the HMRC website (never the number in your text or phone message) to double check the authenticity of the message.

What should you do if you receive a fraudulent message?

If you get an illegitimate call, letter, email or message claiming to be from any government agency, you should report it. Forward it or send the details to the National Cyber Security Centre at report@phishing.gov.uk.

You can find more examples of scam HMRC communications here.

What should you do if you’ve given scammers your details?

Contact your bank immediately. You’ll then need to follow their procedures to either prevent damage or limit it.