The Internal Revenue Service offers the following seven tips to help taxpayers avoid an emerging scheme tempting senior citizens and other taxpayers to file tax returns claiming fraudulent refunds.

These schemes promise refunds to people who have little or no income and normally don't have a tax filing requirement.

Promoters claim they can obtain for their victims, often senior citizens, a tax refund or nonexistent stimulus payment based on the American Opportunity Tax Credit, even if the victim was not enrolled in or paying for college.

Con artists falsely claim that refunds are available even if the victim went to school decades ago. In many cases, scammers are targeting seniors, people with very low incomes and members of church congregations with bogus promises of free money.

A variation of this scheme also falsely claims the college credit is available to compensate people for paying taxes on groceries.

These schemes can be quite costly for victims. Promoters may charge exorbitant upfront fees to file these claims and are often long gone when victims discover they've been scammed.

Taxpayers should be careful of these scams because, regardless of who prepared their tax return, the taxpayer is legally responsible for the accuracy of their tax return and must repay any refunds received in error, plus any penalties and interest. They may even face criminal prosecution.

To avoid becoming ensnared in these schemes, the IRS says taxpayers should beware of any of the following:

  • Fictitious claims for refunds or rebates based on false statements of entitlement to tax credits.
  • Unfamiliar for-profit tax services selling refund and credit schemes to the membership of local churches.
  • Internet solicitations that direct individuals to toll-free numbers and then solicit social security numbers.
  • Homemade flyers and brochures implying credits or refunds are available without proof of eligibility.
  • Offers of free money with no documentation required.
  • Promises of refunds for "Low Income – No Documents Tax Returns."
  • Claims for the expired Economic Recovery Credit Program or for economic stimulus payments.
  • Unsolicited offers to prepare a return and split the refund.
  • Unfamiliar return preparation firms soliciting business from cities outside of the normal business or commuting area.

In recent weeks, the IRS has identified and stopped an upsurge of these bogus refund claims coming in from across the United States. The IRS is actively investigating the sources of this scheme, and its promoters can be subject to criminal prosecution.

To get the facts on tax benefits related to education, go the Tax Benefits for Education Information Center on this website.

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