Millions of taxpayers finally got their tax statements this week and promptly filed their returns.
Millions more of us are still in the data gathering stage — Hey, it's not my fault! One of my 1099s still isn't here. — and will file soon.
But all of us still are potential tax identity theft targets.
Yes, even early filers. Crooks know these taxpayers generally are expecting refunds, so they tailor their deceptive approaches accordingly.
Look out for IRS pretenders reaching out to you to say there's a problem with your filing. It can only be fixed, say these scammers who call or email you, by you giving them a bit more of your personal information, like your bank account number where you want your refund directly delivered.
As for folks waiting to file, crooks will try to get you to accept their "help" in the process, including, sadly, disreputable ghost tax preparers.
The bottom line for all of us, be it during the main tax filing season that runs through April 15 or the run-up to the October extension deadline or later in the year when we're looking for last-minute tax breaks, is to be wary.
Tax scams designed to steal our identities (and our money) and tax information (and our tax refunds) happen year-round.
But there are ways to protect yourself from becoming a victim.
Since today wraps up the Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) annual Tax Identity Theft Awareness Week, here are some pieces of advice from that agency, the Better Business Bureau and IRS on how to avoid tax ID theft scams.
1. File early: Filing as soon as you can is the best way to keep identity thieves from using your data. By getting your 1040 to Uncle Sam first, even if they have your tax information, the IRS won't accept the second return from "you." But, as noted earlier, don't fall for post-filing follow-up scams.
2. Watch out for red flags: If you receive written notice from the IRS about a return, respond promptly. This is the usual way that the tax agency contacts taxpayers when there's an issue with a filing. But again, be careful. Crooks know how the IRS operates and mimic it, even sending fake written correspondence.
If you get any mail from the IRS or someone purporting to be from the agency, double check the document. If you have any doubts about its validity, call the IRS directly and toll-free at (800) 829-1040. Side note: be ready to wait on hold this time of year.
Signs that the mailing might be fake include a "notice" that you received wages from somewhere you never worked or other notices that don't actually apply to you.
And, of course, there's always the warning that "you owe additional tax, refund offset or have had collection actions taken against you for a year you did not file a tax return."
Again, if you have any concerns that there could be a problem with your taxes or suspect that a fake return has been filed in your name, contact the IRS yourself.
3. Protect your Social Security number: By now we all know this drill, but reminders never hurt. Don't give out your Social Security number unless there's a good reason and you're sure you're sure about the authenticity of the person/office that's seeking it.
Even then, be cautious. Requests tend to be automatic from places like your doctor. Does your physician really need your tax ID? Probably not, since the office already has your insurance information.
4. Research your tax preparer: Make sure your tax preparer is trustworthy before handing over your personal information. A reputable tax pro won't have any problem answering your questions before you hire him or her.
5. Consider getting an Identity Protection PIN (IP PIN): This is a six-digit number, which, in addition to your Social Security number, confirms your identity. Once you get an IP PIN, you must provide it each year when you file your federal tax returns. The IRS has expanded the number of states whose residents now can apply for an IP PIN.
Finally, the general advice your mother always gave you applies to tax filing as well as life.
6. Don't believe everything you see: Maybe it's just because there are so many more ways to get information nowadays, but sadly it seems like bad people are taking over the world. That means we all need to be more skeptical.
Identity thieves and other scammers are great at mimicking official seals, fonts and other details. Even scam phone callers are getting better, in some cases, at sounding more legit. And spoofing means even Caller ID can be faked.
The key thing to keep in mind is that just because a website, email or phone call seems official, don't automatically assume that it is.
This FTC infographic shows how IRS imposter scams work and how to see through them.
You also might find these items of interest:
- Steps to take if you're an ID theft victim
- Ways to secure your mobile devices before making online tax moves
- Tax ID theft victim? Get a copy of the fraudulent return filed in your name