Identity theft affects thousands of Americans every year, and at no time is it more prevalent than tax season. According to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, there were more than 109,063 tax-related identity theft complaints in 2014.
With millions of people entering personal information online or filing their taxes by mail, it’s a prime opportunity for criminals to hijack your identity. Plus, many of the IRS computer systems have yet to be modernized, and the organization is fairly large, making it easier for identity theft to go unnoticed.
Criminals take advantage of this time of year by filing tax returns using stolen names and social security numbers to collect victims’ refunds. They also can use your stolen information to get a job, meaning you can be taxed for income you didn’t earn.
With more people filing their taxes online, criminals have also turned to fake IRS and accounting emails and websites to trick taxpayers into revealing personal information.
Overall, it’s a common crime, and anyone who pays taxes is at risk. Stay secure by following these five tips to minimize your exposure to identity theft.
1. Be cautious with email.
In the digital age, one of your greatest exposures to identity theft lies in your inbox—where cyber thieves send emails that seem to be from the IRS and ask for personal information. The IRS will never request personal information through an unsolicited email. If you receive one of these emails, forward it to [email protected]
Do not click on links or download attachments from these emails, especially if the service is promising a bigger or faster refund. This is not true. Average refund times are the same across the board: three weeks for electronically filed returns and six weeks for mailed copies.
2. Clear out old computers.
Getting rid of an old computer? Be sure to destroy all of your data as well. Computers, printers and even fax machines can contain your personal information. Destroy the appliance or use a wiping application to eliminate the data.
3. Use strong passwords.
When filing your taxes online, be sure to use strong passwords that include numbers, symbols and both uppercase and lowercase letters.
4. Read the fine print.
Always read the privacy and security policy of the online filing service before submitting your taxes electronically. It’s important to know when your personal information will be destroyed and if it can be shared with third parties.
5. Know the warning signs.
Detect tax fraud early by making sure the figures on your tax return, other records and accounts look correct. Check your Social Security statement to see if more than one tax return was filed under your name, more wages were reported than you actually earned, you have additional actions requested for a year that you didn’t file a tax return or your benefits were updated because the IRS received information about an income change. Also, keep an eye on medical files, insurance claims and other statements for signs of fraud.
While these five tips can help you prevent tax-related identity theft, it’s impossible to completely eliminate your risk.