Are You Protecting Yourself from Tax Identity Theft?
The IRS has thwarted some identity theft attempts, but thieves are still stealing billions of dollars every year from taxpayers.
Another annual income tax deadline has come and gone. Maybe you had to pay in, but perhaps you were owed a refund. If the latter is true, did you receive it?
A lot of taxpayers didn’t, because hackers swooped in and stole their sensitive tax-related information. Tax identity theft is a serious problem, despite the IRS’s efforts to stop it.
But there are steps you can take to keep from being a victim, some of which are simply a matter of common sense. For example, consider the security of any wireless network you use when you’re working on your taxes. Don’t ever do so on a public network, and make sure your home or office wireless is password protected.
You don’t have to be online to be at risk for tax identity theft. Hackers can grab your personal information in other ways. For example, do you ever carry your tax-related papers back and forth to work or some other location? Know where they are at all times; don’t ever leave them laying around where someone can copy your Social Security number and other details.
Always be aware of your surroundings. If there are other people around when you’re working on your taxes—if you’re in a coffee shop or library, for example—make sure no one is reading over your shoulder.
Phone calls can be risky. A good rule of thumb is never provide someone who calls you with any sensitive personal data – unless you can verify it was a call you were expecting, like one from your bank or a medical office. When you place a call to a legitimate number, it’s generally okay.
You’d think that a call from the IRS would be safe. In reality, the IRS doesn’t ask for personal information over the phone. They send letters through the U.S. Mail. If you ever get a phone call from someone who claims to be from the agency and is demanding some sort of payment immediately, hang up. This is a popular phone scam. You can always contact the IRS directly to see if there is some sort of issue.
Don’t make a practice of carrying your Social Security card with you. Keep it in a safe place unless you absolutely need it away from home for some reason. Also:
- File your return early to keep a hacker from getting in line for your refund in front of you.
- Reduce your refund by adjusting your withholdings at work. It’s nice to get that big payment after you file, but couldn’t you use that money throughout the year?
- Request direct deposit of your refund. That way, no one can steal your check out of your mailbox or somehow re-route a paper payment.
Be especially careful if you’re preparing your taxes on a website. Before you even begin, investigate the publisher’s security protocols to ensure that your very sensitive tax-related data will be treated with great care. Also, update any applications that will be involved, including your browser and antivirus/anti-malware tools.
The IRS will never send you an email out of the blue asking you to click a link or download an attachment or fill in fields to update personal information. In fact, it’s a good idea to avoid taking those actions anytime unless you’re expecting an email and can verify the sender’s address.
Finally, use a very strong, unique password, one you don’t use anywhere else. You’re probably tired of hearing that piece of advice, but it’s absolutely critical when you’re working with a tax preparation application.
Take Action Quickly
It’s possible to get stung by a tax identity thief even if you’re being careful. If it happens to you, you’ll need to complete and submit IRS Form 14039, Identity Theft Affidavit, and watch for responses from the agency. Contact your credit bureaus and financial institutions to apprise them of the situation. Tax identity thieves sometimes try to open new credit cards, for example. You should also file a report with the FTC.