Within hours of writing last week’s blog post, Low-Cost Cybersecurity Tips, I was the victim of a ransomware attempt. Ironic, eh? The scammer’s approach was sophisticated and targeted. I was drawn in by the message, initially replied, and was astounded by what happened next. Good news – this story has a happy ending. But it could have turned out much differently.
I’m sharing this recent brush with cybercrime to illustrate just how insidious online scammers are, and how capable they are of masquerading as a trusted sender. Perhaps reading about my experience will help you avert a ransomware or other cybercrime.
As an established tax professional, I often receive emails from prospective tax clients. Some are referred or introduced to me by an existing client or referral partner. Some prospective clients find me through my website or the IRS’ Tax Pro Directory. On May 20th, I received a message from an individual saying that he and his wife needed a new tax preparer. He acknowledged that he had missed the May 17th filing deadline and provided a few details about their income. He asked me to tell him how much it would cost to prepare their 2020 income tax returns.
Even though I am not taking new tax clients now, I didn’t want to be rude and not respond. I also wanted to be as helpful as possible to a taxpayer in need without committing to perform any work. So, I took a few minutes to write back to explain that I am not available and to share an IRS website link with tips for finding a tax professional and a directory by location of individuals with tax credentials (https://www.irs.gov/tax-professionals/choosing-a-tax-professional).
I noticed that the sender’s email address contained extensions that indicated his location to be in the United Kingdom. That did not make me suspicious of the sender’s identity because I have tax client who live or used to live in the UK. It did, however, prompt me to also send the prospective client another IRS link to information about US taxpayers living overseas (https://www.irs.gov/individuals/international-taxpayers/u-s-taxpayers-residing-outside-the-united-states). Feeling like I had done a good deed, I hit “send”.
Within a few minutes, I received a second message from the sender saying that he had scanned his 2019 returns for my review with a link to access the return copy. Red flag! I stopped in my tracks to absorb what I was reading. It was a clear indication that my “prospective client” was a scammer luring me to click on a link that would probably have held my data for ransom. My valuable tax client files that that contain all sorts of confidential and private information, like bank account and Social Security numbers.
I quickly shifted from “helpful” to “obstructive”. I erased the message string and dumped my email trash. It’s only been a few days, but it looks like that scammer is not coming back. I managed to avert that ransomware scam attempt, but there will be others. We all need to be aware and diligent to avert them. Want some tips? Check out last week’s blog post!