As we head into December, holiday shopping begins in earnest. Today's Cyber Monday is expected to be the busiest ever, as millions have shifted to online purchasing of just about everything during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This increasing burst of internet transactions also means more chances for crooks to steal your payment and personal information.
Much of the data that criminals are trying to snag this holiday shopping season also can be used during the rapidly approaching 2021 tax season to steal you tax identity and use it to file a fake return claiming a fraudulent tax refund.
That's why on this Cyber Monday, the Internal Revenue Service and its Security Summit partners launched National Tax Security Awareness Week.
"This is generally the hunting season for online thieves, but this year there's a dangerous combination of factors at play that should make people more alert," said IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig. "The combination of online holiday shopping, the approaching filing season and more of us are working remotely puts people more at risk. People can help avoid becoming victims of scams or identity thefts, by taking a few simple steps to help protect sensitive tax and financial information."
Online safeguards year-round: This is the fifth annual National Tax Security Awareness Week. As in the previous warning weeks, the IRS and its partners from state tax agencies and the tax industry offer some tips on basic online safeguards.
- Use and update security software.
- Purchase anti-virus software that has a feature to stop malware, as well as a firewall to prevent intrusions.
- Look out for phishing scams, such as imposter emails, calls and texts. Phishing is the number one way thieves steal personal data. Don't open links or attachments on suspicious emails.
- Beware unsolicited contacts about COVID-19, particularly when they refer to an Economic Impact Payment (EIP). These scams, both health and tax related, are common as worry over the virus continues.
- Create strong and unique passwords for online accounts. Use a phrase or series of words that can be easily remembered or use a password manager.
- Use multi-factor authentication whenever possible. Many email providers and social media sites offer this feature. It helps prevents thieves from easily hacking accounts.
- Shop at sites where the web address begins with "https." The "s" is for secure communications over the computer network. Also, look for the padlock icon in the browser window.
- Don't shop on unsecured public Wi-Fi. It's an identity theft invitation to eavesdropping identity thieves.
- Secure your home Wi-Fi system with a password. Anything connected to the internet, from wireless printers to smart speakers to wireless door locks, can be access points for identity thieves.
- Back up computer and mobile phone files. A cloud service or an external hard drive can be used to copy information from your devices. That way you'll have a way to recover financial or tax data.
- Consider creating a virtual private network (VPN) if you work from home to securely connect to your workplace.
Note, too, that while the IRS and Security Summit are highlighting these precautions during this December National Tax Security Awareness Week, they need to be heeded year-round.
Yes, crooks take added advantage of the hectic holiday season. But they work 365 days a year (366 in Leap Years!) to try to scam us and steal our personal data. So don't let up on security steps once we get into 2021 and the new tax season.
Protect all devices: Remember, these security measures cover not only personal computers, but all your internet connected devices.
Our smartphones and tablets are just as — actually, probably even more — susceptible to hacking by ID thieves. Crooks have become more adept at compromising mobile phones as more of us rely on these devices for our daily activities.
That means we face a particular security problem when last-minute holiday impulse buys are made via mobile devices.
So make sure your secure the mobile devices you use to shop (or perhaps to file your taxes; hey, this is a tax blog) are protected.
Federal agencies offer identity theft prevention help: One easy way to do this is to check out the security recommendations for your mobile phone by reviewing the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) Smartphone Security Checker. This FCC tool provides specific steps based on your mobile operating system, be it Android, Apple, Windows Phone or BlackBerry.
Want more mobile security tips? There's the FCC's general smartphone security checklist, as well as its Consumer Guide on Mobile Wallet Services Protection. Both offer ways to protect devices, mobile wallets and the data they contain from theft and cyber attacks.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is staying on top of fraud and scams related to the coronavirus pandemic. There are a variety of COVID-19 schemes, including antibody testing, healthcare claims, cryptocurrency fraud and even some related to taxes.
The Department of Justice (DoJ) is working with the FBI, state law enforcement and the IRS' Criminal Investigation unit to prosecute crooked COVID-19 activities. If you're a target of such a scheme, report the COVID-related fraud incident at the National Center for Disaster Fraud, which is coordinated by the DoJ's Criminal Division.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) also has issued alerts about fraudulent emails claiming to be from the Centers for Disease Control or the World Health Organization. Consumers can keep atop the latest scam information and report COVID-related scams at Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic: The FTC in Action.
IRS online tax security tips: And, of course, you'll want to check out the tax identity theft tips at IRS.gov and the agency's associated social media outlets.
Employers should check out Publication 4524, Security Awareness for Taxpayers and share it with employees and customers. It's also a good guide for tax professionals to review with their clients.
And, of course, the IRS' special Security Summit has even more. As a preview, here are a couple of basic tax identity theft and security tips.
The IRS will not call, text or email about your COVID-19 EIP or your tax refund.
IRS agents call with threats of jail or lawsuits over unpaid taxes. Those are scams.
You also might find these items of interest:
- Beware year-end ID theft and quick cash scams
- Watch out for continuing COVID-19 tax (and more) scams
- 7 ways to protect your tax identity during peak holiday online shopping season — and year-round