Tax filing season is upon us. Soon you will be filing your paperwork and perhaps receiving a nice check — unless thieves file a return in your name first and falsely claim your refund.
Unfortunately, if a thief has your Social Security number and other relevant information, tax identity theft is very hard to prevent. Greg McBride, Chief Financial Analyst for Bankrate.com, notes that "somebody could have your Social Security number and they could have been sitting on it for a while... you would have no idea until they go and file a bogus tax return under your Social Security number. You only find out at the point where your legitimate return gets rejected."
While recent IRS efforts have resulted in a 57% drop in confirmed fraudulent identity theft tax returns from 2015 to 2017 and a 65% decrease in reported tax identity theft victims from 2015 to 2017, tax-identity thieves still falsely claim millions of dollars in undeserved refunds every year.
The IRS is attempting to help taxpayers be proactive by recognizing the signs of potential tax ID theft. The "Taxes. Security. Together" program urges taxpayers to take reasonable precautions and to work with the IRS whenever any activity occurs that suggests tax ID fraud.
Examples of suspicious activity include receiving tax-related documents that you did not request and should not receive, including receiving a bogus refund. Occasionally, information meant to be delivered to the thief will be sent to you by mistake. If you receive a tax document from an employer that you have never worked for, a tax transcript that you did not request, or a reloadable prepaid debit card that you did not expect, you should be highly suspicious of potential tax fraud.
You may also receive a letter from the IRS asking you to verify a suspicious tax return filed with your name and Social Security number. A greedy thief may try to claim a large refund or make a basic error in the return that compels the IRS to label the return as suspicious. When that occurs, the IRS will contact you to see if the return is legitimately yours.
If your return is rejected, start by immediately looking for any simple errors such as transposed Social Security numbers or confusion with respect to dependents — for example, your teenage son or daughter filed their own return claiming themselves when you have also claimed them as a dependent. If no errors are evident, you will have to deal with what McBride calls the "massive headache" of rectifying the situation.
McBride offers perhaps your best line of defense: "To whatever extent you can, try to file your tax return early." Beat the thieves at their own game and file as soon as you have the necessary tax documents from employers and financial accounts. However, since the thieves don't care if your information is correct or not, they have an inherent time advantage.
It's preferable to be preventative and extremely careful with your personal information. The IRS urges you to take reasonable and simple steps, such as securing your computer and mobile devices, using strong passwords, avoiding phishing e-mails, and not engaging in suspicious texts and calls from alleged IRS officials.
Make sure that you take similar precautions with your mobile and wireless connections. Never transmit personal information over unsecured Wi-Fi connections or to unverified websites.
With respect to tax fraud, the IRS is your ally. Neither one of you wants tax-identity thieves to succeed. Do your part, be proactive and vigilant, and help to make 2019 a difficult year for tax-identity thieves.
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