WEEKI WACHEE — In bold white letters against a navy blue background, the header on the e-mail in Chuck Morton's inbox read "Internal Revenue Service."
Correspondence from the IRS typically gets a citizen's attention. Morton read on.
With a subject line declaring "TAX EXEMPTION NOTIFICATION," the message told him to fill out and fax an attached form that asked for personal information so he would not miss out on a special tax immunity.
It sounded compelling. It looked legitimate. But it was a scam.
A longtime member of Hernando County Crime Watch, Morton detected the con right away because, he said, the IRS would not send out such a request for personal information.
Also, the e-mail address of the sender — firstname.lastname@example.org — was a tip-off. E-mails from the government typically end with .gov.
"I saw this and I just thought, 'Wow, that's really strange,'" he said. "Somebody has a lot of chutzpah to screw around with the IRS."
But Morton could envision someone with a less-keen eye easily falling for something that looks so valid from an apparent government entity.
"The inclination is, 'Hey, I'll just reply,'" he said. "Wrong move."
Morton, co-owner of Coast Line Realty Services in Weeki Wachee, forwarded the e-mail on to Hernando County Sheriff's Sgt. Jeff Kraft, who heads the department's scam investigations.
Kraft said it is among the most convincing attempts he has ever seen of "phishing,'' an e-mail from someone purporting to be a legitimate source that tries to gain access to personal information for identity theft.
"They're not asking for money. They're asking for information so they can give you money," Kraft said of the scammers.
In fact, IRS spokesman Mike Dobzinski said, the agency never seeks personal information online. The website makes that clear: "Note: Please do not provide any personal information such as your name, Taxpayer Identification Number, Social Security Number, or address."
Dobzinski said he's noticed a spike in e-mails of this nature leading up to and just after tax season, when scammers send out messages asking people to provide information so they can receive non-existent tax refunds.
"At this time of the year, be on the lookout more than other times," Dobzinski said. "It's not from the IRS, because we don't do that."
Fraudulent e-mails tend to use poor grammar and strange sentence structure, he said, adding that anyone who receives one should forward it to email@example.com.
Also noting that the country is heading deeper into the annual tax season, Kraft said that using the IRS as cover "is perfect timing."
The e-mail, which says it's intended for non-residents, includes an attachment with a form asking for birth dates, Social Security numbers, bank account numbers, passport numbers and debit card digits, among an assortment of requests.
The attachment, Kraft said, makes the scheme unique.
With completed forms, he said, thieves could write fraudulent checks, withdraw money from accounts or sell the information to other criminals.
"If you send it to 10,000 (people), and five hit it, well, you've got five victims and you can make a couple thousand dollars easily," Kraft said. "If you get one out of 10,000, you won."
To avoid being swindled, Kraft recommended that people confirm the validity of any suspicious e-mail or phone call before responding. A 10-second Google search, he said, would likely suffice.
Also, websites such as Lookstoogoodtobetrue.com, Snopes.com and the FBI's home page provide ample information on how protect against Internet scammers.
"There's always been crooks, but instead of walking in and shoplifting it, they do it over the Internet," Morton said. "There's always been people out there. They're just getting a little more sophisticated."
John Woodrow Cox can be reached at 352-848-1432 or firstname.lastname@example.org.