As with many unpleasant things, we often put off doing our taxes until the last minute. But as much as you don’t want to face those 1040 forms, there’s one very good reason to file well before April 15: It’s your best defense against tax-related identity theft.

Tax ID scams usually work like this: Someone who has obtained personal information, such as your Social Security number and date of birth, files a tax return in your name. They do so as early as possible, because the scam relies on the phony return getting to the Internal Revenue Service ahead of the real one. By the time you file, the fraudster may have already gotten a refund, and you won’t know you’ve been victimized until you get word from the IRS (electronically or by mail, depending on how you filed) that it already received “your” return.

Your tax data can be stolen in a number of ways: (1) theft of mail or tax returns; (2) corrupt tax-preparation services; (3) phishing emails from impostors; (4) or hacks of tax firms’ and employers’ personnel records. Some tax scammers file in the name of deceased taxpayers, or steal children’s identities to claim them as dependents. Another twist: A fraudster might use your tax ID to get work, leaving you to deal with the tax man when his or her earnings aren’t declared on your return.

A joint crackdown by the IRS, state tax agencies and the tax-preparation industry appears to be bearing fruit, with the IRS recording big declines since 2015 in the number of reported and confirmed cases of phony returns. But the fraudsters are fighting back, developing new ways to use your tax info for their gain. For example, they may file a fake return, have the refund deposited in your bank account, then contact you, posing as IRS agents or IRS-hired debt collectors, to reclaim the erroneous payment. As with identity theft scams generally, it pays to be proactive in safeguarding your personal data.

Warning Signs

  • A notice from the IRS that more than one return was filed using your Social Security number.
  • A warning from the IRS that you didn’t declare all of your income, based on wages from an employer or job you do not recognize.

Do’s

  • Do file your return as early in the tax season as possible.
  • Do go to the IRS Refunds page to check the status of your refund after you file.
  • Do get to know your tax preparer. Ask about data security and what they do to protect your information.
  • Do fill out an IRS Identity Theft Affidavit (Form 14039) if you discover or suspect your tax ID has been compromised.
  • Do keep personal and financial documents secure, and shred them when you no longer need them.
  • Do take steps to protect your identity online, such as:
    • Use security software and keep it updated.
    • Use different passwords for online accounts and change them regularly.
    • Learn to recognize phishing and impostor emails.

Don’ts

  • Don’t give out personal information such as your address, date of birth and Social Security number unless you know who’s asking for it and why.
  • Don’t click links or open attachments in an email unless you are certain of who sent it and why.
  • Don’t routinely carry your Social Security card or that of a family member. Ditto for documents containing Social Security numbers.
  • Don’t enter personal or financial information on a website unless you know it is secure — look for https:// in the URL address or a padlock icon in the browser window.
  • Don’t do anything while using a public Wi-Fi network that involves password-protected accounts or personal or financial data.

 

AARP Fraud Watch Network

Fight back against frauds and scams! Call our free Fraud Watch helpline at 877-908-3360 to speak with volunteers trained in fraud counseling or go to the Fraud Watch Network website to get the latest information about ID theft and fraud so you can safeguard your personal information and your pocketbook.