Best ways to prevent your tax refund from being stolen

Quick and simple tips for safeguarding your tax refund

Hacker/security
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Tax season brings with it plenty of challenges, with lots of tasks to get done, including the main thing: e-filing your return (opens in new tab) to the IRS. However, getting your tax return (opens in new tab) out of the way is one thing, while looking out for your tax refund (opens in new tab) is another. Unfortunately, fraudsters might be looking out for it too, which is why cases of stolen identity issues concerning tax affairs remain a big problem.

While it’s undoubtedly worth getting yourself sorted out with an identity theft protection (opens in new tab) package, there are several practical steps you can take to safeguard your tax return. Many of these are based on common sense; other measures make it less likely that cybercriminals can get their hands on your details in the first place.

Nobody seems to be completely safe from the possibility of becoming a victim of identity theft. If it happens and is connected to your personal tax affairs (opens in new tab), that could be a big problem, not only because of the hassle. On top of the stress associated with tax-related ID theft, you may also lose your tax refund to scammers. So, here are a few tips that will help keep your tax refund as safe as possible.

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Social Security

Your Social Security number or SSN is likely at the top of the cybercriminal's wants list. With this vital information, fraudsters can take steps toward going after your tax refund, but they may also use it for other purposes. 

The IRS and state tax authorities have this number on file, so if criminals get hold of it, this could cause severe problems down the line, not least of which could mean you losing out on your tax refund. 

It might seem like obvious advice, but make sure you keep your Social Security card safe and secure, and ideally, try to avoid having it in your wallet or purse.

Digital Transformation

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Correct details

If you’ve been the victim of tax-related ID theft (opens in new tab), it can often be some time after the event before you realize it. You may find that the IRS contacts you about a potentially fraudulent claim using your Social Security number rather than the other way around. 

It’s prudent to make sure that you pick through all of the details in your Social Security Administration earnings statement every year to ensure that the information is correct.

Perfect passwords

While there’s no such thing as a perfect password (opens in new tab), it’s worth taking your time to create a solid collection of login info for all your different online accounts. Try investing in a password manager (opens in new tab) package, which can help ensure that your passwords are as good as possible. The usefulness of a password manager should not be underestimated.

Hard drive

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Deleting old data

If you're getting tired of your old PC or smartphone and figure it's time for an update, then make sure you spend just as much time getting rid of any personal information on the outgoing hardware (opens in new tab). Even if you've got a computer so old you don't think it'll be of any use to anyone, it still needs to be disposed of properly. 

It might seem tedious to wipe disks (opens in new tab) and system software (opens in new tab), but this task is worthwhile. Even if you prefer to smash old hard disks into lots of pieces, the main thing is to ensure there's nothing left for the cybercriminal to use. 

Paper trail

The same goes for conventional paper documents; getting a decent document shredder (opens in new tab) is a great idea. 

Watch out for the cheaper models that don't shred quite as efficiently as you might hope. You need to ensure that any paperwork with things like bank account (opens in new tab) numbers and Social Security (opens in new tab) digits can be finely shredded, so there's nothing a cybercriminal could piece back together.

Accounts help

If you're not very organized, hate doing your own accounts (opens in new tab), or prefer to hire a tax professional (opens in new tab), then make sure they're legitimate and have a proven track record. It's no good signing up for a friend of a friend's self-taught accountant (opens in new tab) if they're not entirely sure what they're doing.

You're best off getting help from a certified and fully qualified expert with a good reputation recommended by family, friends, or fellow work colleagues. Don't just give someone the benefit of the doubt, especially when it comes to sharing things like your Social Security number or other sensitive personal information.

Junk removal

Try getting rid of or reducing so-called junk mail that can pile up in mailboxes. These mailers might come in the shape of regular mail, including those endless credit card (opens in new tab) offers. 

As for old-school posts, try opting out of direct mailing campaigns by heading to DMAchoice.org (opens in new tab), which not only gives you tips on how to limit the amount of unwanted mail you get but also offers advice on what to look out for in terms of potential threats. If you want less real or virtual mail, this can be a great place to start.

For email, it’s often simply a case of unsubscribing from mailing lists.

email marketing

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Beating tax refund theft

While the IRS is getting better at tracking cybercriminals (opens in new tab) and reducing tax refund fraud (opens in new tab), it is still a severe issue. To help minimize the threat, it's always a good idea to try and file early. 

If you've got all of your paperwork in hand, then you may as well send the IRS your tax information (opens in new tab) rather than leaving it to a later date and risking the chance of hackers getting hold of your Social Security number and other personal information.

Remember also that the IRS will not send you emails or call asking you to share personal tax information, so be sure not to hand over details like your Social Security number or anything else of a personal nature in this way. 

Thankfully, help is at hand if you suspect tax-related fraud (opens in new tab) has been happening concerning your affairs. First, contact the IRS Identity Protection Specialized Unit by calling 800-908-4490 and explaining your issue. They have teams of experts who can help get to the bottom of the problem, so the sooner you get in touch with them, the better.

Rob Clymo

Rob Clymo has been a tech journalist for more years than he can actually remember, having started out in the wacky world of print magazines before discovering the power of the internet. Since he's been all-digital he has run the Innovation channel during a few years at Microsoft as well as turning out regular news, reviews, features and other content for the likes of TechRadar, TechRadar Pro, Tom's Guide, Fit&Well, Gizmodo, Shortlist, Automotive Interiors World, Automotive Testing Technology International, Future of Transportation and Electric & Hybrid Vehicle Technology International. In the rare moments he's not working he's usually out and about on one of numerous e-bikes in his collection.