Protect yourself against identity theft

If January is a time to recover from the excesses or disappointments of the holidays, February should bring us back to normal routines. For the romantic, there is the Valentine’s Day holiday. For the practical, this is a time to start thinking about taxes. Unfortunately, cyber crime affects tax season, and many will suffer the heartbreak of stolen tax identity or tax fraud.

If you missed Tax Identity Theft Awareness Week January 25-29, remember these three little words: Federal Trade Commission (FTC) — the nation’s consumer protection agency. This is your source for understanding just what identity theft is and how to avoid it. Until you visit the FTC’s Identity Theft Resource Center IdentityTheft.gov, ftc.gov/taxidtheft, or FTC’s “Tax-Related Identity Theft” library, or talk with a specialist at 1-877-382-4357, here is a primer for Camden residents.

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Tax identity theft occurs when someone uses your Social Security Number (SSN) to get a tax refund or a job. There is an entire network of crime involving paying insiders working in banks, hospitals and other institutions with which we do business – including the small business down the street (which may innocently lack efficient data security) for consumers’ personal information. Criminals resell information often. They use it themselves to file an online tax return with your SSN instructing the IRS to deposit the refund in an untraceable prepaid credit card, pocketing or spending the refund. The TV program 60 Minutes first aired an episode on CBS in 2014 about tax identity theft. (They predicted that by this year, the IRS will have lost $21 billion due to tax fraud.)

Take extra precautions with your tax return and the highly-sensitive information it contains to avoid months of agony, including filing massive amounts of paperwork and making countless visits to the IRS. File taxes early in the tax season to reduce the window of time in which a thief could fraudulently file taxes and obtain a refund (instead of you) under your SSN. If filing electronically, only submit forms through a secure Internet connection. If filing by mail, go to the post office directly to mail the envelope.

Do not respond to email messages asking for your personal information even if they give the impression they are from the IRS. If the IRS needs to contact you, it will do so by mail. Scammers set up computer “phishing” scams on social media and via email to get you to click on a link and provide your information to them. Instead, forward the email to phishing@irs.gov.

If your identity has been compromised and someone has obtained a job with your SSN, the employer may report that person’s income to the IRS using your SSN. When you file your tax return, you obviously won’t include those earnings. IRS records will show you failed to report all your income. The agency will send you a notice or letter saying you were paid the wages, but didn’t report them.

The FTC advises if that happens, or if you think identity thieves have stolen your SSN and are filing for a tax refund in your name, or if you get an IRS notice indicating a problem with your filing, contact the IRS immediately. The IRS Identity Protection Specialized Unit is at 1-800-908-4490. According to the FTC, you should also put a fraud alert on your credit reports, order and review your credit reports, file an identity theft complaint with their agency, and file a theft report with the police department.

Protecting your personal information reduces your risk of identity theft. Know who you share information with, making sure they are trustworthy. Store and dispose of your personal information securely, especially your Social Security Number; ask questions before deciding to share your personal information. This is no time to be Minnesota “nice.” Finally, maintain appropriate security on computers and other electronic devices.