Tax-related identity theft is increasing, and experts say we ignore easy ways to protect ourselves by stressing about filing.
Last year, credit bureau Experian found 28 percent of Americans have been victims of tax fraud or know one. More than that wait until the last few weeks to file — scammers literally bank on us procrastinating.
For most Americans, Tax Day is somewhere around April 15. For scammers, it’s at the end of January — identity thieves want to file and secure your tax refund before you even start thinking about taxes, so they try to move as soon as the IRS starts accepting tax returns.
That’s why the Federal Trade Commission hosts Tax Identity Theft Awareness Week the last week of January, and why experts recommend you file as soon as you have all the paperwork you need. It’s no coincidence that week is also the deadline for employers to mail your W-2.
“File early,” says Michael Bruemmer, VP of consumer protection for credit bureau Experian — it’s the best way to protect yourself. “If you are soliciting outside help, only use personal recommendations. Ask ‘How many returns have you handled?’ and ‘Have you ever had a data breach?'”
Tax fraud is still the top scam
The Better Business Bureau named tax scams the most common type of scam in 2016. It also topped the BBB list last year.
The federal government doesn’t get quite as specific about scam types, but tax fraud is still arguably on top.
“Identity theft complaints declined from 16 percent in 2015 to 13 percent in 2016, with 29 percent of 2016 consumers reporting that their data was used to commit tax fraud,” the Federal Trade Commission says.
For the first time this year, “imposter scams” surpassed identity theft as the top complaint — but it may be a classification issue more than anything else. “The rise in impostor scam reports is due to an increase in complaints about government imposters,” the FTC says. Scammers frequently pose as the IRS.
Bruemmer says you should never respond to emails, texts, or phone calls from “the IRS” — unless you’ve already heard directly from a verifiable IRS agent through another channel. “Don’t fall for anybody asking for your Social Security number,” he adds.
The IRS says it doesn’t initiate contact with taxpayers by email, text messages or social media channels to request personal or financial information, and phone calls can be verified by calling 1-800-366-4484.
How to protect yourself from identity theft
If you haven’t filed your taxes yet, it’s already too late to employ the most useful tactic for preventing tax-related identity theft — filing early.
If you’ve been a victim of tax fraud, Bruemmer suggests checking out the IRS’ identity protection PIN program. It gives you a unique number from the IRS to sign your tax return with, and any return filed without it is rejected. Residents of Florida, Georgia, and Washington, D.C. can get a PIN even if they aren’t fraud victims. Bruemmer says only one in three victims apply for a PIN, even though it makes it much harder for thieves to hit you again.
He also has other advice that applies just as well to every kind of identity theft.
“Check your credit report and bank statements regularly to notice unexpected transaction amounts,” he says. Only 12 percent of people do, according to Experian’s study. “There may be an early indicator of activity you may not think is anything, but may evolve into full-blown ID theft.”
He also cautions against using public Wi-Fi for any financial transactions, and placing a free fraud alert on your credit reports if you suspect you’ve been a victim of identity theft. The FTC also has a whole website devoted to recovering from identity theft.
Article last modified on April 11, 2017. Published by Debt.com, LLC .