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Top Tips to Stop Tax-time Identity Theft – Part 1

Tax Time Identity Theft: Part 1 – Tax Preparers | Part 2 – Protecting Computers | Part 3 – IRS & Tax Scams

Tax season can be a stressful time of year for individuals and business owners alike, especially those who fail to plan in advance and then sacrifice focus and performance as they race to meet the filing deadline. But that stress is nothing compared to the potential destruction of your financial reputation brought on by tax-time identity theft. And tax-related identity theft is on a precipitous rise.

An audit published on July 19, 2012 by the U.S. Treasury Department, found that the IRS paid fraudulent tax returns to identity thieves worth a total of $5 Billion in 2011. The study also predicted that the IRS (and therefore, you as a taxpayer) will lose an estimated $21 Billion in fraudulent claims over the next five years. Tax-related information is the Holy Grail of identity theft because it contains virtually every piece of information, including a Social Security number (SSN), which a fraudster needs to defraud you.

Tax-related identity theft affects individuals in a couple of ways:

  1. Refund fraud. In refund fraud, an identity thief illegally uses a taxpayer’s name and SSN to file for a tax refund, which the IRS discovers after the legitimate taxpayer files. The legitimate taxpayer is then forced to spend time and money proving her innocence, setting the record straight with the IRS and protesting fines and penalties assessed because a refund was given where taxes were potentially owed. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, “The National Taxpayer Advocate, an IRS watchdog group, got 55,000 requests for help with tax-identity theft in 2012.  The group has seen a 650% rise in the number of identity theft cases it handles since 2008.  And the IRS since last year has doubled to 3,000 the number of staffers working on such cases.”
  2. Employment fraud. In employment fraud, an ID thief uses a taxpayer’s name and SSN to obtain a job. When you as the employer report income for the employee to the IRS, the legitimate owner of the SSN appears to have unreported income on his or her return, leading to enforcement action.

There are steps that you can take that will minimize your chances of being affected by this growing crime. It is your responsibility to protect not only your own tax-related information, but also the sensitive data you handle on behalf of your business, employees and customers if you work in a job that requires you to handle such data.

This is the first of a three-part series in which we’ll provide you with practical checklists to help prevent tax identity theft and/or deal with it once it’s happened.

Today’s Tax-Time Identity Theft Tip: Choose a security-minded tax preparer.

Your greatest risk of identity theft during tax season comes from a surprising source: a dishonest or disorganized tax preparer. Ask yourself (and your preparer) these questions:

  • Does your tax advisor have an established track record and years of satisfied clients? Google them to find out.
  • When you visit your tax preparer’s office, are client files well protected? Do they leave tax-related folders in the open for the cleaning service to access, or are they locked in a filing cabinet or secure office? Do they meet with clients in a neutral, data-free, conference room?
  • Have you interviewed them on how they protect your private data, whether or not they have a privacy policy and if they provide employee data security training?
  • Have you expressed your desire that they take every precaution to protect your data? Asking professional tax preparers these questions sends them a message that you are watching!
  • Is your tax preparer working on a secured computer, network and Internet connection?
  • When filing W-2/W-3 and 1098/1099 tax forms, have you obtained them from a reputable source to make sure that they aren’t fraudulent?

Tax Time Identity Theft: Part 2 – Protecting Computers | Part 3 – IRS & Tax Scams

John Sileo is an author and highly engaging speaker on internet privacy, identity theft and technology security. He is CEO of The Sileo Group, which helps organizations to protect the privacy that drives their profitability. His recent engagements include presentations at The Pentagon, Visa, Homeland Security and Northrop Grumman as well as media appearances on 60 MinutesAnderson Cooper and Fox Business. Contact him directly on 800.258.8076.

Top Tips for Tax ID Theft Prevention: Part 3

Don't get hit by tax ID theft

Tax Time Identity Theft: Part 1 – Tax Preparers | Part 2 – Protecting Computers | Part 3 – IRS & Tax Scams

Stop falling for IRS and tax ID theft scams.

Because we are distracted during tax season, we are primed to be socially engineered or manipulated by tax scams and can end up becoming the victim of tax ID theft. Here’s how to combat the problem:

  • When someone asks for your SSN, TIN or other ID, refuse until you verify their legitimacy.
  • If someone promises to drastically reduce your tax bill or speed up your tax return, suspect fraud and tax ID theft.
  • If anyone asks you for information in order to send you your check, they are scamming for your identity. The IRS already knows where you live (and where to send your refund).
  • Know that the IRS will NEVER email you for any reason. The IRS emphasizes that it doesn’t “initiate contact with taxpayers by email to request personal or financial information.” This includes “any type of electronic communications, such as text messages and social-media channels.”
  • In case you are caught in a tax-related identity theft scam, make sure you subscribe to a sophisticated privacy and identity theft monitoring software to protect your back and help you recover from the mess.

Protect your non-digital sources of identity theft.Tax ID Theft is Rampant

A lot of tax ID theft happens in physical forms. Take a few minutes to defend the following common sources of ID theft:

  • Pay your taxes with checks that can’t be easily washed, altered or counterfeited.
  • Mail safely. Tax documents are easy to spot and commonly stolen out of the mail. Send your tax return by certified mail so that you know it has arrived safely and is transported with greater care.
  • Consider filing electronically so that you remove mail theft from the equation.
  • Shred all tax-related documents that you no longer need.

If you feel that you are a victim of tax-time identity theft, contact the IRS’s Identity Protection Specialized Unit at 800-908-4490, ext 245. You can also get in touch with the IRS’s Taxpayer Advocate Service at 877-777-4778. Most importantly, begin taking the preventative steps above now, as it will be too late when filing season is upon us. The sooner you get started, the greater your peace of mind and data security.

Tax Time Identity Theft: Part 1 – Tax Preparers | Part 2 – Protecting Computers

John Sileo is an author and highly engaging speaker on internet privacy, identity theft and cyber security. He is CEO of The Sileo Group, which helps organizations to protect the privacy that drives their profitability. His recent engagements include presentations at The Pentagon, Visa, Homeland Security and Northrop Grumman as well as media appearances on 60 MinutesAnderson Cooper and Fox Business. Contact him directly on 800.258.8076.

Top Tips for Tax-time Identity Theft Prevention: Part 2

Tax Time Identity Theft: Part 1 – Tax Preparers | Part 2 – Protecting Computers | Part 3 – IRS & Tax Scams

Secure your computers and copy machines from hackers.

Last year, more than 80 million Americans filed their tax returns electronically and even more stored tax-related information insecurely on their computers. To prevent electronic identity theft, implement the following security measures:

  • Install anti-virus, anti-spam and anti-spyware software (generally referred to as a Security Suite) configured to download and install automatic updates. Failure to take this most basic and time-tested of steps allows malware attached to malicious emails, social media platforms and rogue websites to penetrate your entire system, giving thieves access to every computer on your network, not just one.
  • Create strong alphanumeric passwords or utilize password protection software to protect the digital keys to your information.
  • Encrypt hard drives or data-sensitive folders to keep out unwanted visitors.
  • Set up automatic operating system updates and security patches that close gaping entry points for data thieves.
  • Utilize only a WPA2+ encrypted wireless network that discourages thieves from sitting outside of your home or office to sniff the data you send over Wi-Fi.
  • Have a professional install a properly configured, password-protected firewall that sits between your network and the Internet.
  • Don’t email sensitive tax data unless it is encrypted. In a pinch, you can email password protected PDF documents.
  • If you use a commonly accessed copy machine, consider erasing your copy machine’s hard drive, as it maintains a digital record of every document you scan or copy. Criminals often access these when you (or your workplace) sells or repairs the machine.
  • Continuously monitor your identity using  a sophisticated product that handles cyber-surveillance, credit monitoring, restoration services and ID theft insurance.

Tax Time Identity Theft: Part 1 – Tax Preparers | Part 3 – IRS & Tax Scams

John Sileo is an author and highly engaging speaker on internet privacy, identity theft and technology security. He is CEO of The Sileo Group, which helps organizations to protect the privacy that drives their profitability. His recent engagements include presentations at The Pentagon, Visa, Homeland Security and Northrop Grumman as well as media appearances on 60 MinutesAnderson Cooper and Fox Business. Contact him directly on 800.258.8076.