Tax season officially kicked off this week with the IRS accepting returns from filers.
Plenty of time remains for those procrastinators who prefer to file when the deadline rolls around — April 17 marks that date this year. But with the Equifax hack and similar opportunities for thieves to access the personal information of millions, it may pay off to file early to safeguard any refund that might be due.
Tax-related identity theft occurs when a person’s Social Security number is used by someone else for the purpose of claiming a refund to which they have no rights. Victims often discover the fraud after they receive a notice from the IRS that states their Social Security number was used on more than one tax return filed in a single year or the agency’s records show there was income from an unknown employer.
The Federal Trade Commission this week reported some encouraging news on that front. The number of tax-related identity theft complaints filed in 2017 made up 22 percent of 371,157 identity-theft complaints, down from 33 percent of the 399,223 complaints filed the previous year.
The agency also reported a decline in the number of scam artists who call taxpayers and threaten them with arrest or large fines unless an immediate payment is made. The 56,065 complaints involving these so-called IRS impostors in 2017 represent a 54 percent decline from the previous year.
“We’ll have to wait to see if the declines turn into long-term trends,” said Seena Gressin, an FTC Consumer and Business Education Division lawyer, while promoting a public awareness campaign intended to combat these crimes. “In the meantime, you can be sure of this: The more you know about tax-related identity theft and IRS imposter scams, the better your chance of avoiding them.”
While the prevalence of tax-related identity theft appears to be waning, the Internal Revenue Service warns “taxpayers to remain vigilant to scams as they continue to be reported around the country.” Thieves often target those who are impacted by disaster — natural or otherwise — and vulnerable populations.
“These scams evolve over time and adjust to reflect events in the news, but they all typically are variations on a familiar theme,” IRS Commissioner John Koskinen states in a media release addressing the topic. “Recognizing these schemes and taking some simple steps can protect taxpayers against these con artists.”
In an effort to combat this crime, the IRS offers tips for taxpayers, tax professionals and businesses:
• Taxpayers are urged to use security software with firewall and anti-virus protections, keep it turned on, and set it to update automatically. Sensitive files stored on computers should be encrypted, and a unique password created for each account.
• Taxpayers should familiarize themselves — and learn to recognize and avoid — phishing emails, threatening calls and text messages sent by thieves posing as legitimate organizations. Do not click on links or attachments in suspicious email messages or those from unknown senders.
• Taxpayers should protect personal data — treat it like cash, and don’t leave it lying around.
• Tax professionals are encouraged to review security features and exercise due diligence while protecting client data.
• Businesses and other organizations are urged to combat identity theft by helping educate employees — especially payroll and human resources workers — clients and customers.
• Businesses that retain sensitive financial data also should review and update security plans.
Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901, @dsmootMPhx or [email protected].