Tax season can be a stressful time as you pull together all those forms and documents to prepare your taxes for the IRS, state treasury departments, and city tax offices. It also can be a great time for thieves to find an opening and scam you out of not only money but also personal information.
There are ways, however, to keep from being the victim of identity theft this tax season. Here are a few things to watch out for as you put the final touches on your tax forms.
Don’t give scammers your information
Scammers using robocalls might find tax season is a good time to prey on people. Never answer a call from a number you don’t recognize, and if you do, don’t give them any of your personal information.
If the person identifies themselves as working for the IRS, hang up and call the revenue agency yourself to get more information. Also be suspicious if someone contacts you by email claiming to be the IRS, and don’t respond with any of your personal information. If you come across suspicious activities or suspected scams, you can contact the IRS or the Department of the Treasury to report it.
Secure incoming mail
It can be a chore to organize all the documents you need with plenty of paper coming into your mailbox. But that’s also a good way for thieves to get your Social Security number as well as other important information. If you have issues with your mail getting stolen or not being secure, consider getting a mailbox with a lock or even collecting your mail at the post office. It may be a little inconvenient but could save you headaches later.
Pro tip: Remember to protect yourself from identity theft with your outgoing mail as well. If you need to send government agencies tax returns, paperwork, or payments through the mail, go to your local post office to send them instead of leaving envelopes waiting outside in an unsecured mailbox for your postal carrier.
Avoid ghost preparers
A ghost tax preparer is someone who won’t sign tax returns they prepare, so be cautious of any preparer who gives you a completed tax form and requires you to file it without their signature. They also may ask for cash payments or try to find unscrupulous ways to get your additional refunds. Ghost preparers might also tell you to send your refund to their bank account and then wait for a check from the preparer for your refund.
Store or properly dispose of paperwork
The IRS recommends you hold on to documents, including your tax forms, for three to seven years depending on your circumstances. Treat your tax documents as you would other important documents and remember to keep previous tax returns in a secure location that can’t be easily accessed by others. And when you’re ready to dispose of them, find a secure way to do so, such as a document shredder in your home or taking them to a secure location for shredding.
File your tax return early
One of the best times to target someone with a tax scam is when a tax filer is stressed out and under pressure to meet the deadlines for their returns. Scammers may also try to file tax forms early with your information on it in order to get money from the IRS. Then you have to deal with the fallout from filing a return with duplicate identifying information.
Instead, try to give yourself plenty of time to prepare your taxes and file your return. You also may want to file early in case there are any issues that need to be resolved before the deadline.
Find a reputable tax preparer
A professional certified public accountant will be seeing plenty of documents from you with personal information like your Social Security number, bank statement, W-2 forms with your incomes, financial records, and more. When searching for an accountant to prepare your tax documents, find out if they have a good reputation when dealing with other clients and their personal information.
States also have requirements for licensing CPAs, so check with your state’s licensing agency or a website like CPAverify, run by the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy, to see if your tax professional is licensed.
Use tax software responsibly
It may not be hard to find some of the best tax software available to complete your taxes, such as Turbo Tax or TaxSlayer. But be careful about how and where you use these types of tax preparation programs. The best place may be your home as opposed to a library or coffee shop so others can’t see your documents laid out with your information on them. You also might want to make sure your firewall protections and any anti-virus software is updated before you start working on your return.
Be cautious of charities that want too much information
One of the potential places for taxpayers to get additional tax breaks is through charitable contributions. Charities should provide you with receipts of your contributions, which you can give to your tax preparer or use with your tax software.
But legitimate charities likely won’t ask you for things like your Social Security number or bank account information as part of their donation process. Be wary if a charity asks you for personal information in order to make a tax-deductible contribution.
Don’t let your guard down
Scammers don’t stop after the April deadline to file taxes and may try to use later months to catch you off guard. Be on alert with anyone who may contact you and identify themselves as an IRS employee. Remember that the IRS won’t email you asking for your Social Security number, bank account number, or other information.
Also be cautious about giving someone who calls you your personal information. And think about checking your credit report and credit score on a regular basis to see if there’s any unusual activity.
Pro tip: Check out ways to protect your identity from thieves, so you know what to look for in case you’re ever approached by a scammer.
How to report any identity theft
If you do find that you are the victim of a scam, there are several steps you can take. The Federal Trade Commission has a website — IdentityTheft.gov — which can help you through the process from reporting the incident to putting a plan in place to combat the scammers.
You’ll want to contact the major credit bureaus and put a freeze on your credit so thieves can’t open new accounts with your information. Also consider contacting your bank and other financial companies to let them know of the suspected theft. Some institutions may require a police report as proof of the possible theft.
The IRS could also require you to file documents about the theft in case someone else tries to use your Social Security number to file taxes.
Scammers may find tax season to be a lucrative time to steal personal information from unsuspecting taxpayers. But if you are cautious and know what to look for, you may be able to protect yourself from scams as you prepare to file your tax returns for different government agencies.