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No, that is not the Taxpayer Advocate Service calling in latest IRS impersonation tax scam

Ways to stymie tax identity theft attempts and scams


I attend fitness classes — OK, mostly yoga and I tend to head into Savasana a bit sooner than most of my fellow yogis — several times a week at my neighborhood club.

Most of the members have been there for year and it's got a community feel. Still, I am always amazed at how much personal information folks share about themselves with people they really don't know very well. 

Many folks, in fact, share stuff albeit unintentionally with total strangers as a recent piece by Kate Klonick for the New York Times alarmingly illustrates.

Klonick, who teaches information privacy to law students, recently had her students conduct experiments to assess public privacy assumptions.

The assignment was based on an almost 45-year old theory by Irwin Altman in the 1975 book The Environment and Social Behavior: Privacy, Personal Space, Territory, Crowding, to wit (to get all legal!):

"People will assume anonymity in public and then reveal various levels of private information given what they believe their environment to be and what tools might be available to manage disclosure."

Spoiler alert, Klonick's students found out a lot without too much effort.

Protect your privacy: Privacy concerns become even more important at tax filing time. After all, our lives are pretty much laid bare on our personal Form 1040.

That's why the Internal Revenue Service is once again urging taxpayers to protect the security of their personal, financial and tax information.

Basically, says the IRS, treat personal information like cash. Don't hand it out to just anyone.

Social Security numbers, credit card numbers, bank and even utility account numbers can be used to help steal a person's money or open new accounts.

Also be wary of any requests for personal information. Con artists use scams and schemes, particularly during tax time, to get this data, often going to great lengths to appear trustworthy and legitimate.

Even when you're confident a request is from a legitimate source, whenever you're asked for personal or financial or tax specifics, consider whether the request is truly necessary. For example, does your family doctor really need your Social Security number? No. So you don't have to provide it.

Lest you think I'm picking on doctors, medical offices are prime targets of hackers and identity thieves. They are gold mines of personal information on thousands of individuals, all in one handy place.

Unfortunately, I know this from personal experience after someone tried to use the credit card I specifically use to pay medical bills. My card issuer caught the suspicious charge before it was approved, but I had to get another card.

Phishing remains in season: In addition to hacking, ID thieves often simply ask for our information. And too many of us answer their criminal questions.

Phishing, in case you've been living totally off the grid, is a cybercrime in which crooks contact victims by email, telephone or text, posing as a legitimate institution to lure individuals into providing sensitive data.

The efforts remain near the top of the IRS' annual Dirty Dozen tax scams list (more on the 2019 schemes coming soon to the ol' blog), notably efforts during tax time where phishers pretend to be employees of Uncle Sam's tax agency.

Don't take the bait.

The IRS doesn't initiate contact with taxpayers by email, text messages or social media channels to request personal or financial information.

Also be skeptical of unsolicited emails, especially those instructing you to download an attachment or click on a URL. These phishing efforts often appear to come from someone that you know, such as a friend, work colleague or tax professional. But those addresses could be spoofed by the identity thieves.

In addition to anti-phishing tips, the IRS also offers the following tax privacy and security tips:

Safeguard personal data in daily and online activity. Provide it only when necessary. When you do give out personal information, do so only over reputable, encrypted websites Look for "https" at the beginning of a web address (the "s" stands for secure) and be sure the designation appears on a website's every page.

Use strong passwords. The longer the password, the tougher it is to crack. Use at least 10 characters; 12 is ideal for most home users. Mix letters, numbers and special characters. Try to be unpredictable. Don't use names, birthdates or common words. Don't use the same password for many accounts and don't share them on the phone, in texts or by email. Consider using a passphrase versus a password.

Also, requests for passwords are red flags. Legitimate companies will not send such messages. And keep passwords in a secure place or use password management software.

Use security software. An anti-malware program should provide protection from viruses, Trojans, spyware and adware. The IRS urges people, especially tax professionals, to use an anti-malware program, make sure it is always on and keep it up to date.

Back up files. No system is completely secure. Copy important files, including federal and state tax returns, onto a removable disc or a back-up drive, and store it in a safe place. If storing sensitive tax and financial records on a personal computer, use a file encryption program to add an additional layer of security.

The bottom line is use common sense. Don't share personal information, particularly not in public or on unsecured systems.

You might think you're in a safe place or that no one cares about info you think is innocuous. But crooks use all sorts of tidbits, large and small, to steal identities.

You can never be too careful or discreet when it comes to preventing tax identity theft.

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