Due to the financial nature of taxes, as well as the personal information needed to prepare a return, tax returns are prime targets for identity thieves. To put give an idea of how bad things are, the US Government Accountability Office estimates that during the 2013 tax season, over $5 billion in fraudulent tax refunds were issued by the IRS.
In order to prevent yourself from becoming a victim of identity theft, you should take reasonable steps to keep your tax information safe.
Tip #1: Secure your personal computer and Internet connection
Make sure your computer or mobile device has up-to-date firewall, anti-virus and malware/spyware security software. These can help detect malicious software that can steal information and record keystrokes. Additionally, if using a Wi-Fi Internet connection, make sure it’s protected before doing anything that requires the submission of personal information or typing of passwords, like online banking.
Tip #2: Protect personal information
Don’t provide personal information such as date of birth, social security number, address or other information unless it’s truly necessary. Also, don’t carry your social security card in your wallet or purse.
Tip #3: Avoid scams
Learn to spot suspicious e-mails or telephone calls stating you must confirm the security of a financial account or asking for personal information. If you think an e-mail or telephone call might be real, do not click on the link provided in the e-mail or provide personal information to the person who called you. Instead, contact the financial institution directly through a phone number known to be legitimate, such as on the back of your credit or debit card, to make sure the e-mail or phone call you received is not fraudulent.
Tip #4: Use an Identity Protection PIN (IP PIN) when filing your taxes
The IP PIN is offered by the IRS and consists of a six digit number that taxpayers provide with their returns to help prevent fraudulent federal tax returns. Only certain taxpayers are eligible, and once an IP PIN is used for one year’s returns, it must be used for all subsequent years.
Tip #5: Go paperless
Whether it’s e-filing taxes or receiving tax related documents via a website, it may be wise to have financial documents obtained electronically. If going paperless isn’t an option, having mail with sensitive personal information delivered to a post office box or a locked mailbox is an alternative.
Tip #6: Request a free credit check
Federal law allows you to receive a free credit report every year from the following credit reporting agencies: Equifax, TransUnion or Experian. Checking your credit report can help detect identity theft before you would otherwise notice it.
Tip #7: Use Form 8821
The IRS allows taxpayers to authorize another party to receive correspondence from the IRS. In order to utilize this service, individuals must complete Form 8821, which allows taxpayers to designate someone else, even themselves, to receive communications from the IRS. This can serve as a warning system should an identity thief deal with the IRS without the taxpayer knowing. For example, if an identity thief has submitted a fraudulent return and the IRS contacts the identity thief, the taxpayer can receive the same correspondence the identity thief has received.
Tip #8: Destroy then dispose
Before getting rid of anything that contains personal information, make sure that information has been properly destroyed first. From shredding old pay stubs to wiping computer hard drives to resetting mobile devices, make sure steps are taken to ensure personal information cannot be accessed by anyone else.
Many of the above tips will be common sense for some taxpayers. For others, it won’t be applicable. Even if all of the above tips are followed, they don’t guarantee that tax information can’t be stolen. However, it makes things much harder for identity thieves, who often focus on the easiest targets.