The closer it gets to the deadline for filing income tax returns, the more likely people will go online rather than to the post office -- and the harder electronic scam artists will work to make victims out of taxpayers.

The closer it gets to the deadline for filing income tax returns, the more likely people will go online rather than to the post office -- and the harder electronic scam artists will work to make victims out of taxpayers.

Last year, the number of people filing taxes electronically continued to rise, to more than 76 million. According to the Internal Revenue Service, the number of last-week filers going online jumped by 35 percent.

As more people file taxes online, more scam artists try to take their money.

The IRS says a new e-mail scam involves notifying consumers their tax returns will be audited, with easy links they can click on to complete forms with personal and account information.

In another scheme, they send IRS-branded e-mails informing taxpayers of a refund, then directing them to a phony Web site that asks for personal data.

A recent study by Consumer Reports found that last year alone, these kind of phishing scams cost Americans $2.1 billion.

The IRS does not communicate with taxpayers by e-mail, and doesn’t ask for passwords or personal identification numbers.

ONLINE FILING TIPS

- Know what phishing is. Phishing scams use fraudulent e-mails and Web sites to impersonate legitimate businesses to obtain personal information.

Reputable businesses never will ask for user name, password, credit card numbers or a Social Security number via e-mail. If you’re concerned about your account, contact the organization directly via telephone.

- Don’t use the link in an e-mail to visit a Web site. Never cut and paste the link from the message into your Internet browser -- phishers can make links seem as if they go to one place, while actually sending you to a different site. Open a new Internet browser and type in the company’s correct Web address manually.

- Don’t enter your personal information onto a pop-up screen. Phishers may direct others to the Web site of a real company or organization, but then an unauthorized pop-up screen created by the scammer will appear, with blanks in which to provide your personal information. Install pop-up blocking software to help prevent this type of phishing attack.

- Check that a Web site is secure. When providing your personal information to a business Web site, check for signs that the site is secure: a lock icon on the browser’s status bar or address for a Web site that begins with “https:” ( “s” indicates “secure”). These signs are not 100 percent foolproof, since even security icons might be forged. 

Consumers also should look for a trustmark, such as HACKER SAFE, on the home page of shopping sites. This lets consumers know that the site has been tested for security risks and is safe to use.

- Use strong passwords. Create passwords that combine letters (upper and lower case), numbers, special characters, and are more than six characters in length. An example of a strong password would be: Go1dM!n3.

- Install comprehensive security software, and keep it up to date. Some e-mails contain harmful software that can damage your computer or track your Internet activities, without your knowledge.

Both anti-virus software and a firewall will protect you from inadvertently accepting such unwanted files.

Source: McAfee Inc.