Protecting Yourself During Tax Season
During last year’s tax season, it seemed unlikely that we would still be dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic when filing again this year. However, as the world continues to react to the virus, scammers are adapting their techniques to steal your money. With the increase in the number of transactions with the IRS this year (including child tax credit pre-payments, economic stimulus payments, and federal unemployment), the door has also become more widely open to thieves attempting to steal your tax benefits and your identity.
What is tax identity theft and how does it work?
According to the IRS, tax-related identity theft occurs when someone uses your stolen personal information, including your Social Security number, to file a tax return claiming a fraudulent refund. A successful scammer can create an online return using just your Social Security number, even if they don’t spell your name right. Once the fraudulent account is established, they can not only use it to file taxes on your behalf and receive your refund, but also to receive future relief payments from the federal government. The criminals are adept at using accounts that funnel money into pre-paid debit cards so that it is untraceable and unrecoverable.
Who is at risk?
In short, everyone is at risk of falling victim to tax identity theft. Thousands of Americans are impacted each year. As with other forms of identity fraud, children and the elderly are most commonly targeted, but with the increase in tele-working, more people also found themselves falling victim to online-based fraud. Once employees are outside of the firewalls that are typically found in corporate environments, hackers are more easily able to gain access to devices and the information stored within them.
What do you need to watch out for?
Your first sign of tax identity theft this season will usually be a letter from the IRS after filing your return, informing you that one has already been filed using your Social Security number. Year-round, expected payments that are not received are a sign to watch for. Also be mindful of any tax reporting documents from employers you never worked with. Rather than ignoring them, follow up to ensure someone else hasn’t stolen your identity and taken a job using your information. Here is a quick list of suspicious activity involving the IRS that may be identity theft, from the Taxpayer Guide to Identity Theft.
Be alert to possible tax-related identity theft if:
You get a letter from the IRS inquiring about a suspicious tax return that you did not file.
You can’t e-file your tax return because of a duplicate Social Security number.
You get a tax transcript in the mail that you did not request.
You get an IRS notice that an online account has been created in your name.
You get an IRS notice that your existing online account has been accessed or disabled when you took no action.
You get an IRS notice that you owe additional tax or refund offset, or that you have had collection actions taken against you for a year you did not file a tax return.
IRS records indicate you received wages or other income from an employer you didn’t work for.
You’ve been assigned an Employer Identification Number but you did not request an EIN.
What should you do to protect yourself?
Now that you are armed with information about what tax identity theft is and how to recognize it, there are several actions you can take to protect yourself from becoming a victim.
Protect your personal information by keeping your Social Security number or tax identification number at home in a secure location. When asked for these numbers, be skeptical and verify that it is a legitimate need. Additionally, keep your home computer security software up to date, and run regular software updates on your connected devices (including the seemingly less risky ones like smart watches).
File your taxes as early as possible each year – in short, beat the scammers to it. As soon as you have the necessary documentation, go ahead and take care of this right away.
Visit the IRS online account website to create your account, and monitor it regularly. While a lot of personal information is required to create the account, once you have done so, you can monitor your tax activity throughout the year, including if a return has been filed in your name. Through your online IRS account, you can then request an Identity Protection PIN (IP PIN). Once established, the PIN must be included on your federal tax return in order for it to be processed as valid.
Remember, the IRS will never initiate contact with taxpayers by email, text or social media to request personal or financial information including your taxpayer Identity Protection PIN, nor will they ever threaten with lawsuits or arrest.
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