Phishing alert

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Executive summary

Taxpayers are exposed to multiple requests for information regarding their financial affairs. Most of these requirements are based on increased scrutiny imposed by foreign and local laws aimed at more transparency in the global stride to eliminate offshore tax evasion. As a result, compliance requirements on both financial institutions and taxpayers around the world have been steadily on the rise. Unfortunately this also creates an environment for unlawful and potentially fraudulent requests instigated by criminal organizations. These so-called ‘phishing’ communications are designed to lure unsuspecting taxpayers to provide personal and financial information with the intent to abuse the information obtained for their own personal gain.

We have recently been made aware that Belgian residents have been mass targeted with a phishing e-mail claiming to be from the IRS and containing a request for completion of a W-8BEN to be completed and returned via fax at a number provided, alluding to a reduced or exempt tax on US source interests if the form is completed and promptly returned. The e-mail contained an attachment which was labeled as a Form W-8BEN but which in fact was altered to include a section “Identification of Beneficial Owner” as opposed to where one would normally expect to see simply a claim of tax treaty benefits.

This communication is clearly to be considered as a malicious attempt to obtain personal financial information. It is not always easy to differentiate between an official and correct request for information and a ‘phishing’ e-mail, however there are some straightforward indications which may help you make the difference between the true and the false.

TIPS

If you have received a request for information, note that The IRS will never contact a taxpayer directly via e-mail.
Form W-8BEN is never required to be sent to the IRS directly by the taxpayer. The form is designed to be completed for and gathered by a financial institution (a bank, broker, etc).
Most financial institutions will require an original form W-8BEN with an authentic signature to be kept on file in accordance with their own internal risk management policy. A fax will therefore normally not be accepted.
The IRS will never solicit you for personal or financial information such as your bank account number, by e-mail, phone, mail or fax. Moreover, the IRS does not communicate through e-mail unless the communication was started in a specific context (e. g. a tax audit).
Form W-8BEN is an IRS form which should not contain any other information than what is shown on the original form.
A form W-8BEN is never required to be accompanied by a copy of your passport or any other identity proving document.

Overall, it is important to remember that the IRS will not contact you directly and you should be extremely wary of sharing any personal information over e-mail if not within an existing relationship which you have learnt to trust.