It’s the most dreaded time of the year: Tax Day is almost here! But it’s more like Christmas for identity thieves. Between visits to your accountant, working full-time, and scavenging for financial documents, we often put security on the back burner during tax season. We often don’t think about secure passwords while filing our taxes online, or the dangers of emailing your accountant financial documents containing your social security number, or know exactly who has access to your key accounts.
While tax filers and accountants are busy worrying about sending in their tax filings on time, identity thieves are cashing in on people’s procrastination and neglect. In 2013, the IRS estimated that it prevented $24.2 billion in tax returns from identity theft, but paid $5.8 billion later determined to be fraudulent returns. This year, the IRS is predicting a tremendous increase in tax fraud, up to $21 billion!
Whether you have yet to file your taxes, or you filed your taxes weeks ago, make sure you follow these tips to make sure this tax season is more bearable (and much safer!)
1. Keep new accounts safe. First time filing electronically? Is your accountant using a new online tax portal? Keep track of all of your tax and financial accounts, and make sure you create a strong, unique password for each account. Better yet, add Two-Factor Authentication to make sure your data and identity remain safe.
2. Beat thieves to punch! The earlier you file your taxes, the more likely duplicate tax filings will be rejected by the IRS. Also, as a tax filer, make sure you check on the status of your refund within 24 hours after submitting your e-filed tax return. If you haven’t received your refund within 21 days of electronically filing, or in 6 weeks after submitting your paper return, contact the IRS as soon as possible.
3. For individuals or tax preparers who choose to file their taxes electronically, make sure you purchase a verified tax software program and prepare your taxes locally on your computer, not on a website. If you do choose to file your taxes online, make sure you fill out forms on a secure “https” site only.
4. To make sure your tax information is safe, do not store any tax and financial documents locally on your computer. The IRS recommends backing up important tax and financial records on an external hard drive, a CD or DVD, or on a USB drive, and stored in a safe place.
5. If you are a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) or Certified Tax Preparer (CTP), make sure to disclose your preparer tax identification number (PTIN) issued by the IRS to your clients. For tax filers looking for a tax preparer, the Better Business Bureau (BBB) recommends asking for referrals, checking for reviews at BBB.org, and asking the preparer about his/her qualifications and credentials.
6. Do not file taxes while connected to a public Wi-Fi hotspot. While drinking coffee at your favorite coffee shop may help ease the stress of filing taxes, public wireless networks are not secure, and could easily be intercepted by snoopy hackers. Don’t risk it. Take your coffee to go.
7. ‘Tis the season to use once-a-year accounts. From part-time odd jobs to stock accounts to your retirement savings accounts, tax filers will need a tax document from several online accounts they probably only sign into once a year. Now it’s tax time and you don’t remember your passwords for them! Don’t make your password “easier” to remember. Make them strong and complex, and store them in a safe space, like a password manager. And don’t share your passwords with your accountant!
8. Social security numbers aren’t meant to be shared. When the time comes to share it with your spouse, accountant, or even your employer, make sure you share it verbally (and confidentially) over the phone, or in a secure, encrypted note.
9. Log out before you close! We’re all guilty of having several tabs open at once and forgetting to sign out of our email, social media, and other web accounts. Don’t make the same mistake when you file your taxes! Don’t risk staying logged in to a computer and someone—possibly your accountant—accessing your account just to save time.
10. Your old files need some Spring cleaning! Make sure you and your accountant permanently delete or securely archive old files and outdated financial documents. For physical tax and financial documents, shred them if they’re no longer needed.
11. Hmm. That email looks fishy. If it’s an email from the IRS claiming you need to pay up, or a link to a tax software you’ve never heard of, do not open it! The IRS will never contact you via email, text (SMS) message, or by social media and ask for payment information. These phishing scams are an easy way for hackers to steal your personal information, or cause malware to be installed and infect your computer.
12. Check your computer’s security. Make sure that your desktop and mobile device’s current software is up-to-date to prevent malware and other viruses.
13. Tax filers: did you check your credit report? It may not be on the top of your to-do list, but try to check your credit score at least once a year to make sure no one has opened another credit or loan account under your name.