It’s Identity Theft Prevention Week. Are You Protected?
Each year, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission sponsors Identity Theft Awareness Week to educate Americans about the dangers of identity theft. Though the FTC offers numerous webinars and online resources to help highlight the issue, scammers invent new, more sophisticated ways to steal identities every day. With tax time just around the corner, it may be helpful to learn some of the ways criminals may try to steal your identity.
Wait, Where’s My Refund?
Are you expecting a large refund this year? When scammers get access to your personal information, such as your address, birth date, and Social Security number, they can use it to file a fake tax return on your behalf and steal your refund. One way thieves can gain access to your personal information is by using the IRS name or logo in an email, and capitalizing on your fear of having to pay a penalty or an unexpected tax bill. This version of “phishing” can trick consumers into sharing their financial and personal data, which the scammers then use to steal your identity and your money.
In addition to email, thieves can attempt to trick you with a phone call, regular mail or even faxes. According to the IRS, they may go through your trash, looking for old returns, bank receipts or records, credit card statements, or other records you may discard. You may not realize there’s a problem until you try to file your tax return and learn that someone else has already filed using your Social Security number.
I’m from the Government, and I’m Here to Help …
Another popular scam involves thieves posing as an IRS taxpayer advocate and disguising their phone numbers to appear to be from the IRS Taxpayer Advocate Service. They’ll ask for your personal information as they “work through” an alleged problem with your taxes. Instead, they’ll steal your identity and work through your bank accounts, helping themselves to your hard-earned money.
Congratulations! You’re Entitled to Another Stimulus!
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. government created various stimulus packages and sent payments to taxpayers through the Treasury. While the days of stimulus checks are over for now, lots of scammers are raking in stimulus payments of their own by sending “official” emails to taxpayers stating that they qualify for an additional stimulus. To claim, the email asks you to click on a link to provide your personal and financial information. This is another way thieves can steal your identity.
Oops, We Miscalculated Your Refund.
It would be easy to get excited if the IRS said you were entitled to a larger refund than you anticipated, wouldn’t it? If you receive an email to this effect, along with a link requesting your personal information, don’t click on it! Instead, verify the information by calling the IRS’s customer service line first. If you were entitled to a larger refund, you would likely receive a letter in the mail from the IRS, not an email.
The IRS Accepts Gift Cards?
The IRS does not accept gift cards as payment of taxes or penalties, but that’s what scammers want you to believe. You may receive a call or a voicemail from someone claiming to be from the IRS telling you that you owe the IRS money. Instead of asking you to write a check or send a wire transfer, the caller will ask for payment in the form of gift cards from various retailers. Once you buy the cards and provide the caller with the card number and PIN, the scammer will enjoy a shopping spree at your expense.
So, how can you keep from becoming a victim of identity theft? The IRS suggests taking these steps to protect yourself from scammers this tax season:
- Be careful with your documents. Shred papers with your personal or financial information before you throw them away.
- Change your passwords often, and do not provide your login information or other security data to a third party.
- Use multi-factor authentication to protect your online accounts. That way, if a scammer does get your login information, the thief will need an additional passcode or even a fingerprint, facial recognition software or some other additional information to access your account.
- When receiving a suspicious email, don’t click on any links and don’t open any attachments. If you are unsure whether the email is legitimate, look up the organization’s phone number (don’t call the one listed in the email) and ask for verification.
- Keep your virus software up to date. Suspicious emails could carry viruses that can infect your computer.
- If you encounter a scammer using the IRS name, logo, or other information, or if you are a victim of an IRS scam, contact the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration right away.
Finally, stay informed. The examples of scams provided here are just a few of the ways criminals target victims. As technology evolves, it’s likely identity theft crimes will evolve too. Stay safe this tax season!