The weeks before taxes are due on April 15th is busy for all of us -- but perhaps even more so for identity thieves. They're taking advantage of opportunities to lift your personal information off financial documents, scam you into answering emails or phone calls from fake IRS agents, and much more.
All identity thieves need are a person's name and Social Security number to do a lot of damage, such as opening new credit card accounts in your name. But the more information they find, the more harm they can do, including accessing your existing bank and financial accounts.
Here are five important tips for keeping your and your family's identity safe.
Double-check that your incoming mail is secure. An easily accessed mailbox, stuffed with envelopes, is an easy target for thieves. And in the weeks before tax time, they may find a tempting assortment of W-2, 1099, and similar end-of-year statements from your bank, employer, or investment account holders. Buy a locking mailbox, or ask that your statements be sent someplace more secure. And follow up if you don't receive expected paperwork.
Choose your tax preparer carefully. Some tax-preparation outfits are fly-by-night operations that may literally close up shop after your taxes are filed. Not only is that a problem for the accuracy of your taxes, but such outfits are the least likely to guard your documents or shred them before disposal. Cases of tax preparers being the source of identity leaks have been reported.
Don't believe just anyone who says they're from the IRS. If you receive a supposed IRS email asking for personal or financial information, delete it or send it to the FTC at firstname.lastname@example.org for investigation. Don't be fooled by links to what looks like the real IRS website -- that too may be a fraud. The IRS will never email taxpayers about issues related to their accounts. Nor will it ask for a Social Security number or financial details over the phone. When in doubt, call the IRS at 800-829-1040.
Store and dispose of your paperwork carefully. No matter how relieved you are to be done with your tax filing, sweeping all your leftover documents or draft tax forms into the recycle bin is a recipe for trouble. Identity thieves are notorious dumpster divers. Some have been known to simply drive a car up to someone's front walk, dump their recycling pile into the trunk, and speed off. Also keep your remaining tax and financial documents in a secure place, like a locking file cabinet.
File safely. Filing taxes online is fine, but first make sure you've updated your firewall, antivirus, and anti-spyware software. If you file by mail, take your envelope straight to the post office rather than leaving it in your mailbox for pickup.
For more information on protecting yourself from identity theft year-round, get Stopping Identity Theft: 10 Easy Steps to Security, by Scott Mitic (Nolo).