Even if you're expecting a refund, tax time can be stressful. Gathering all the necessary income and financial information, making sure forms are completed and filed on time, and waiting to see if you'll owe or get money back can weigh heavily on your mind well before April 15. Do you really need one more thing to worry about?
Unfortunately, you also need to think about security and identity theft at tax time. Whether you file online or by mailing paper forms, your tax return contains a staggering amount of information about you. You need to protect that information at every step of the preparation and filing process.
Fortunately, the steps you take to stop identity theft throughout the year are still effective at tax time. You just need to add some extra precautions to your regular habits.
First, arm yourself with information about what the IRS is doing to combat identity theft. The Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC), a nonprofit organization that aims to educate consumers about identity theft prevention, reports that the IRS has implemented several measures, including:
* Development and implementation of standardized processes for tracking and handling identity theft reports.
* Creating procedures to identify and resolve identity theft cases related to taxes.
* Tracking identity theft incidents reported by taxpayers.
* Tracking identity theft cases discovered by the IRS.
Next, know the signs of tax-related identity theft. If you receive a written notice from the IRS (they don't contact taxpayers via email) that they received more than one tax return for you in the same year, or IRS records indicate you received income from an employer you don't know, you may be a victim of identity theft.
Keep in mind that as tax time approaches every year, criminals impersonate the IRS by email, phone, websites and even tweets - all in an effort to scam your information. Be suspicious of any email or phone contact you receive, and if you suspect it's a scam, go to www.irs.gov/contact/index to determine if the contact is legitimate. Forward suspect emails to the IRS investigative team at phishing [at] irs [dot] gov.
Finally, consider these additional steps to guard against identity theft while filing taxes:
When preparing your return:
* Never leave your tax prep documents, such as pay stubs, W-2s and financial statements in an unsecure spot, like your car. When transporting tax documents, keep them hidden from view at all times.
* Be careful when choosing a tax preparer. Do your homework on the preparer's credentials, reputation and security measures before hiring someone. Ask how your information will be protected while in the preparer's possession, and the method he or she will use to file your return. While many tax software providers offer free online versions of their products that can help those whose tax needs are basic, be especially skeptical of individuals who advertise online as tax preparers. For something as important as your tax return, it pays to have face-to-face meetings with the person working for you.
When filing your return:
* Keep firewall, anti-virus and anti-spyware software up to date, especially if you'll be filing online, or using your Internet-linked PC to store financial information or prepare your return.
* Use a strong password to protect your data file when e-filing. Burn the file to a CD or flash drive once you've filed and remove the personal information from your hard drive. Store the backup in a lock box or safe. If an accountant is preparing your taxes, ask him or her what measures are being taken to protect your information.
* If you're filing by mail, take your return directly to the post office and mail it from there. Never mail from your home mailbox or from an outgoing mailbox at work. As an added layer of security, consider getting delivery confirmation service. If you're getting a refund, consider asking for direct deposit. If you must receive your refund by check, then collect your mail daily.
While you can't escape your tax responsibility, you can prevent criminals from taking advantage of you while you're doing your civic duty. With the appropriate identity theft protection steps, you can cross one item off your list of tax-time concerns.
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