What’s the most important number for you this tax season? The amount of your refund? The amount you owe? The number of hours spent poring over all the other numbers? All of those are pretty important, but none of them are as important as your Social Security number, at least not in the larger scheme of things.
That’s the number that puts you at greatest risk for identity theft, and, at this time of year, there are plenty of opportunities for potential thieves to nab it. It’s on the W-2 forms you get in the mail, the return you mail (or send electronically) to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and perhaps even in an email between you and your accountant.
If someone does steal your Social Security number (SSN), they can use it for more than just opening new credit accounts. They could file a fraudulent tax return and claim a refund, too. You might not even realize it until you go to file your real return.
So, how do you keep your identity safe this tax season? These tips will help:
Safeguard Your Tax Documents
- As W-2s and other tax documents start arriving in the mail each January, place them in secure storage, whether it’s a home safe or a locked drawer in a desk or filing cabinet, until it’s time to use them. This is also where documents and returns from previous years should be – under lock and key.
- Help ensure tax documents reach you safely by keeping your address up to date with your employers, financial institutions, and other appropriate parties.
- After seven years, it’s safe to throw out old tax returns and supporting documents, after running them through the shredder.
Use Secure Delivery Methods
- Never place your tax documents or return in an insecure outgoing mailbox, even at your office. Use certified mail instead.
- Dropping off your documents to your tax preparer? Don’t leave them unattended in the car or sitting out on your desk at work.
Protect Your Data When eFiling
- No matter if you use an app, software or a website, such as the IRS’s Free File, to e-file your taxes, be sure you do so from a secure network and an updated computer or device. No e-filing at your local library.
- Your computer or device should already have the latest security software and updates installed, and you should already be using complex passwords (a long mix of letters, numbers and special characters). Continue these measures during tax time.
- If you’re sending tax documents via email, make sure the documents are password-protected.
- Encrypt any sensitive data stored on your computer or backup drive.
Don’t Take the Bait
- Learn to recognize phishing attempts, where thieves email or call and try to trick you into providing personal information. Remember, banks and other financial organizations typically will not request your account number or SSN when they contact you.
- Keep in mind that the IRS will never attempt to reach you by phone or email, only by mail. If you do receive an email claiming to be from the IRS, don’t click on anything within it.
Know the Signs of Tax-Related Identity Theft
- If you don’t receive a W-2 or other tax document you were expecting, it may have been stolen from your mailbox. Or, if you receive one you weren’t expecting, such as a W-2 from a company for which you’ve never worked, someone may be using your SSN fraudulently.
- Envelopes containing your tax documents or returns have been tampered with.
- The IRS will not accept your return because it already has one for you. In this case, you may need to mail your return (and any payment) instead of e-filing.
These precautions may make it harder for someone to steal your identity — but not impossible. So, what should you do if you become a victim of tax-related identity theft? First things first, contact the IRS at once. You can reach the IRS Identity Protection Specialized Unit at 1-800-908-4490. You’ll likely need to fill out and submit the IRS Identity Theft Affidavit, Form 14039.
These additional steps will also help:
- Use the Federal Trade Commission’s Identity Theft Affidavit to record details about the crime. Then take it to your local police station and file a report.
- Make use of your affidavit and police report as you work to close fraudulent accounts, correct your credit reports and more.
- Place a fraud alert on your credit reports to encourage creditors not to grant new lines of credit in your name without your consent. To do so, contact one credit bureau, which will share the fraud alert with the other two:
- Review your credit report for other signs of fraud. This may include inaccurate account information, accounts you never opened and more.
Tax time is probably never going to be fun, even if you never experience identity theft. But, being cautious can certainly help to minimize your risk and your stress — that is, until it’s time to write that check to the IRS.