During tax season, identity thieves creep out of the woodwork and hunker down in front of their computers. This is a lucrative time of the year for criminals seeking to steal Social Security numbers, addresses and bank account information.
Personal and financial data circulates through the mail and over Internet connections at an increased rate. If criminals can intercept just one W2 or 1040 form, they have a wealth of information at their fingertips.
Experian´s ProtectMyID™ took advantage of the 2011 tax season to gauge people´s attitudes toward securing their tax documents. Surprisingly, the majority of participants don´t take any extra steps to protect themselves. That´s good news for identity thieves, who wreak havoc on more than 9 million victims in America every year.
Looking at security issues relating directly to tax documents, the study uncovered a notable lack of concern:
Only 9% of participants use certified mail for their tax returns.
58% either weren´t concerned about their preparer losing their tax information or else hadn´t thought about it.
48% do not store old tax documents in a secure place.
The majority, or 55%, of participants file their returns electronically using updated virus protection on their personal computers - a move in the right direction for tax time security.
Anytime personal information changes hands, the risk of it falling into the wrong ones is present. During tax season, identity thieves have numerous opportunities to steal valuable information. Here are a few of the ways your tax information could put you at risk, plus ways to help protect yourself.
Employers mail out W2 forms. Banks drop year-end interest statements in the mail. All of these tax documents contain valuable information, from addresses to Social Security numbers. If a tax form ends up in the wrong mailbox or stolen from someone´s home, all of the information is vulnerable.
Ensure your employer and financial institutions always have your up-to-date address on file.
Request to download your tax forms from a secure intranet or online account rather than having it sent through the mail.
If you don´t receive a tax document and the sender notes that it was already mailed, be on the lookout for the signs of identity theft.
If it appears that the envelope containing a tax document has already been opened, heighten your identity theft awareness. Check your credit reports for unauthorized accounts and other activity.
As soon as you receive a tax document, put it in a safe at home and leave it there until you´re ready to do your taxes.
A tax return gives criminals even more information than a W2. These completed documents contain personal information, such as Social Security numbers for both the filers and their dependents. And they list financial data, such as the bank account numbers of consumers who use direct deposit for their tax refunds.
If you´re mailing your tax documents to your tax preparer or mailing your tax return, use certified mail.
Don´t leave a completed tax return unattended at home, especially if you have visitors, roommates or employees working in your home, or unattended in your car, briefcase or desk after picking it up from your tax preparer.
Choose your tax preparer or accountant carefully and ask how the office plans to store and protect your private information.
If the IRS rejects your return because it has already accepted one in your name, act quickly. You may be a victim of tax identity theft. Contact the IRS Identity Protection Specialized Unit at 1-800-908-4490.
Keep all of your old tax returns in a locked safe at home that only trustworthy adults can access.
E-filing can put all of the same personal and financial information at risk as a standard tax return, but in a different way. The protective measures unique to e-filing encompass standard computer security that should be a year-round priority.
Always keep your operating system and all of your protection software up to date. Check for updates to your firewall, virus protection and anti-spyware software before beginning your taxes.
Use your own computer to e-file rather than a public or work one. If your tax preparer is e-filing for you, ask about the computer security measures within the office.
Create strong passwords using letters, numbers and symbols for any software, online accounts, folders or files relating to your taxes and personal information.
Be careful disposing of or donating an old computer that you´ve used to store personal information or conduct financial transactions. Even after reformatting the hard drive, your information is often still retrievable.
If you use your smart phone for tax-related or financial transactions, be sure to password protect your apps and your overall phone. Also download software or enable your phone´s feature to remotely wipe all information from your phone if it´s lost or stolen.
Remember to be extra cautious around tax time, when a significant amount of your personal information is compiled and circulated. Also remember that the IRS will only contact you by mail with issues regarding your tax return. Don´t respond to a phone call or email claiming to come from the IRS. This is likely a phishing attempt to steal your personal information.
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