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How to protect yourself from tax identity theft

Securing your personal and tax data is not only wise but could save you money in the long turn

ID theft
(Image: © Image by S. Hermann and F. Richter from Pixabay )

Identity theft is an increasingly common problem around the globe. If you’re affected, it can mean someone else might be using your personal and financial data, without your permission, for their own motives. This can frequently involve applying for credit cards or removing funds from your bank account. However, identity theft (opens in new tab) can happen in another area concerning your tax affairs.

If criminals gain access to your Social Security number and other personal details, they’ll likely use the information for unscrupulous reasons. One of the most common examples of this is filing a fraudulent tax return (opens in new tab), which uses your Social Security number and associated personal data to file a fake return and subsequently pocket the money that would usually be returned to you.

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This can also have other ramifications, which can be a bit of a nightmare to put straight. However, because tax identity theft has become such a problem, the IRS has pretty good measures to help you if it happens. Nevertheless, while the revenue service might spot fraudulent activity around your Social Security account, you can also do plenty to protect yourself.

Spotting the signs

We all need to be more vigilant about cybercrime now that so many of us are online, especially now that so many of us e-file our tax returns. One of the most apparent indicators you’ve been the victim of tax identity theft is if you electronically file your return and it gets rejected by the IRS because someone has already filed using your name and Social Security Number.

Even if you’re still filing your tax return by mail, you can be subject to the same issue, and the IRS will write to you stating that it already has a return in your name. Unfortunately, this also means that criminals have used your name and Social Security number, usually hoping to secure your tax refund. 

Another indicator of criminal activity with your account can include the IRS informing you of a new online account created in your name on the revenue website.

Fraud

(Image credit: Shutterstock / Sapann Design)

Common sense

While anyone can be a victim of tax-related identity theft, there are several essential things you can do to minimize this ever-present threat. Most of these measures revolve around using common sense to protect your personal information. For example, make sure that you don't share your Social Security number, address, birth date, or anything else that relates to yourself or your tax affairs if you don't need to.

Many people still get caught out every year by sharing their details in response to emails and phone calls. Criminals frequently use bogus emails to make phishing attempts and get your details using what may look to be a legitimate contact. This might even come from a source that you think seems okay, but phishing emails often have tell-tale signs that they are not genuine. It's far better not to respond before you've made more detailed checks rather than providing information quickly and then regretting it later.

A classic example of a phishing email (opens in new tab) is when criminals send you a message that purports to be from your bank. In many cases, they'll be hoping you click on a link within the message and supply your details, including your name, address, account number, and your Social Security number. However, banks and other institutions will never ask you to do this, so the best thing to do with emails like this is to delete them right away.

Identity protection

One way to help keep your tax affairs better protected, particularly if your account has been compromised before, is to get an Identity Protection Personal Identification Number or IP PIN. This is a handy option offered by the IRS that can help to reduce the threat of tax-related identity theft.

The IP PIN is a six-digit number assigned to you by the IRS and needs to be used in tandem with your other personal tax information when you file your annual income tax return. To obtain one, you’ll need to register with the IRS.gov website to create an online account.

Taking steps

While it does involve another level of work, creating an online account and receiving the six-digit IP PIN can help keep your information much more secure. The IRS will always crosscheck any contact from you via the IP PIN, especially when it comes to tax filing time. It adds another level of security to proceedings, meaning more crucial information is needed on top of your Social Security Number, name, and address details.

Once you've created an online account with the IRS website, you'll find that the revenue service also offers an IPN tool (opens in new tab), which will get the wheels in motion. Next, you'll need to tell the IRS your email address, give them your Social Security number or Individual Tax Identification Number, and let them know your mailing address, tax filing status, and a financial account number.

Naturally, check that the IRS.gov (opens in new tab) site is the official one if you're handing over this information, as the process involves revealing a lot of information about yourself. Although there are some hoops to jump through initially, the process is automatic once everything is in place. The IP PIN works for one year, with the same process applying if you want to avoid tax identity theft in the future too.

Prevention is always better than a cure, so as long as you're diligent and careful about who you share your data, the risk of identity theft is lessened somewhat. However, it's also good to know that there are some solid options if you are unfortunate enough to fall victim to criminals.

Rob Clymo
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.