If you receive my newsletter, you’ve already seen this article on identity theft during tax season, but I thought I would re-post it here.
Tax time is like Christmas for identity thieves. Our personal information sits out on desks (ours and our tax preparer’s), is mailed improperly, emailed incorrectly and stored unsafely. And to top it all off, we are used to giving our personal data away during tax time, and therefore preconditioned not to give the risks much thought. It’s time to think about it.
Top Tips for Tax Time Identity Theft Protection
Safe Preparation. If you use a tax preparer, understand how they protect your privacy. Do they leave files out on their desk for the cleaning service to access at night, or do they lock your documents in a filing cabinet or behind a secure office door? Do they protect their computers with everything listed in the second tip below? How well do you know the person and company preparing your taxes? Did they come personally recommended, or could they be earning cash on the side by selling your personal information. Asking professional tax preparers these questions directly sets an excellent standard for your relationship. They should be able to answer them without pause. If they know that you are aware that tax documents attract identity thieves, they will probably be more careful with your information. Remember, losing your identity inside of their accounting or bookkeeping business poses a tremendous legal liability to their livelihood.
Secure Computers. Last year, more than 77 million Americans filed their tax returns electronically. To prevent electronic identity theft, you must take the necessary steps to protect your computer, network and wireless connection. Have a trusted computer security professional help you implement the 7 steps to a system lock-down (Passwords, Anti-virus/Anti-spyware, Encryption, Automatic Operating System Updates, Secure Wireless Networks, Firewalls and Mobile Computing Devices) and make sure that your tax preparer does the same. Also, make sure that all peer-to-peer networking is turned off or configured to disable the sharing of your personal folders (so that the identity thief can’t download your tax return). Lock all PDF printouts of tax documents with a password (a feature available in Adobe PDF products).
Don’t Buy it! If someone promises you (by phone, fax, mail, or in person) to drastically reduce your tax bill or speed up your tax return, don’t believe them until you have done your homework (call the IRS directly if you have to). Anytime someone is promising too much (bigger refunds, faster service), or threatens you (e.g., “the IRS will come after you if you don’t do this”), your instincts should warn you that they are probably trying to get information out of you by playing on your desire to get something for nothing, and your desire to avoid confrontation. This is especially apparent with the new economic stimulus tax-time checks that go into effect this May. If anyone asks you for information in order to send you your check, they are scamming for your identity. The IRS already knows where you live (and where to send your rebate)!
Mail Safely. If you are sending your tax return through the mail, make sure to carry it inside of the post office and send it by certified mail so that you know it has arrived safely. Too much mail is stolen out of the blue USPS mailboxes and driveway mailboxes that we use for everything else. Don’t email any private information to your tax preparer or spouse unless you are very comfortable with how to encrypt email. If you don’t know how to encrypt, don’t count on email as a secure form of communication. If you don’t want it published in the newspaper, don’t put it in an email.
Shred and Store Safely. Any copies of tax documents that you no longer need can be shredded using a confetti shredder. Store all tax records, documents and related materials in a secure fire safe. I recommend spending the extra money to have your Sentry Safe bolted into your home so that a thief can’t walk away with your entire identity portfolio. Make sure that your tax provider appropriately destroys and locks up any lingering pieces of your identity as well.
Your tax records are one of the most comprehensive and complete collections of your identity. Don’t take the threat of them disappearing too lightly.