ITRC Solution 24
Tax Time Tips

Tax time, whether it’s in April, June, October or December, often puts important personal identifying information at risk for exposure. Your W-2’s, and other IRS reporting forms, include your Social Security number and, in some cases, financial account information. These numbers can be a gold mine for identity thieves. Your personal information can enable a thief to obtain a job, open up new lines of credit, access existing financial accounts or stock portfolios, get welfare, avoid a criminal history and generally create havoc in your life.

The question is: where are those forms kept in your home? Are they lying on a table top or somewhere anyone can see them? Or, are they in a locked box or file cabinet? Many consumers are not aware of the potential threat that these forms represent, and take little notice of the necessary steps which should be taken to secure these items.

With this in mind, the ITRC wants to remind consumers and businesses to be careful when handling tax-related documents and information.

Here are some tips on how to minimize the risk of identity theft:

Paper security

Whether it’s in the home or in the office, make sure all tax documents and paperwork are secured in a safe, locked location at all times. Any financial statement or item which contains personally identifying information (PII) should not be left unsecured or visible to others.

Data on the Move

Financial documents don’t belong in a briefcase left unattended in your car. Law enforcement has reported increases in vehicle break-ins to steal items which can be used to commit identity theft. When transferring tax documents between home and the accountant, make sure they are hidden from view, i.e. locked in the trunk, at all times.

Computer Security

If your computer is linked to the internet, be sure to regularly update firewall, anti-virus, and anti-spyware software to protect you from attack. Since many taxpayers now file online, or store financial information on their computers, it is vitally important to install and update these types of security programs. Sensitive documents should be kept on a computer with a password protected log-on. This computer should never be used by children others who might install peer-to-peer software (Kazaa or Limewire) or expose the computer to unrestricted web browsing. These activities often result in security problems.

E-Filing

While preparing your tax return for filing, make sure to use a strong password to protect the data file. Once your return has been e-filed, burn the file to a CD or flash drive and remove the personal information from your hard drive. Store the CD or flash drive in a lock box or safe. If working with an accountant, you should query them on what measures they take to protect your information.

Mail Theft Awareness

Be sure to retrieve your mail every day. An unlocked mailbox is an open invitation to an identity thief to steal your tax refund or other important documents. When mailing your tax documents, take them directly to the Post Office. Drop them in a box inside the Post Office. If you must use an outside Post Office pickup box, it’s best to drop your mail before the last pick-up of the day. Don’t leave tax documents in an outgoing mail box at work.

Tax Preparers and Personal Privacy

Be selective about who works on your taxes. Investigate tax preparation companies with the Better Business Bureau, especially new or seasonal offices. Ask the preparer how your information will be stored? Will it be encrypted? What computer security software is used? Who has access to this information? Has the person working on your taxes undergone a thorough background screening? How many years have they worked for the company? Do you see personal papers displayed on desks? Trust your impressions. If you feel uncomfortable, or doubt the firm’s commitment to protecting your privacy, take your business elsewhere.

The phrase “buyer beware” especially applies to “on-line tax preparers.” Who are these people? What do you know about them? Are they really a company or legitimate accountant or is it a scam to gather Social Security and account information from you?

Resources

Directory of Federal Tax Return Preparers with Credentials and Select Qualifications - This searchable directory is intended to help you with your choice by providing a listing of preparers in your area who currently hold professional credentials recognized by the IRS or who hold an Annual Filing Season Program Record of Completion.  (This directory is updated regularly and is current as of 12/28/2015. It may take up to four weeks after the IRS receives an update for a tax return preparer's information to be added or revised in the directory.)

In four states, there are requirements for independent tax preparers who are not CPAs, “enrolled agents,” attorneys or certain types of banking officials:
California
• Oregon
• Maryland
• New York

Avoid doing financial business in supermarkets, or other public concession booths, where others may hear or see your transaction. Those mini offices are not soundproof - and criminals have been observed using binoculars or shoulder surfing to gather information. Go someplace where you have more privacy.

Tax Time Scams

If you receive an email asking for your Social Security number or financial information, delete it or send it to the FTC for investigation. The IRS does not send emails stating you are being electronically audited or that you are getting a refund. If you have any questions about an email you received from the IRS, or a letter that sounds suspicious, immediately call the IRS Taxpayers Advocates at (877) 777-4778.

Document Disposal

Put papers you no longer need through a cross-cut shredder. These include credit card receipts, other papers with Social Security numbers (i.e. income reporting forms), financial statements, health benefit statements and loan documents. Do not store these documents intending to shred them at some future time. As soon as you determine the document is no longer needed, shred it!

Document Storage

When storing your tax returns and other sensitive financial documents, use a locking file cabinet or even better, a safe. Make sure you know who else has access to this storage.

Employment Identity Theft

Identity theft goes beyond the well-known forms of financial identity theft. Sometimes identity thieves use your identity to get a job, obtain welfare, or medical services. They may be employed and using your Social Security number – or even your child’s Social Security number. In these situations, the IRS may send a notice indicating that more than one person is using a Social Security number, or that you owe taxes. If this happens, immediately contact the IRS Taxpayer Advocates or the Identity Theft Resource Center at (858) 693-7935 for assistance. 
 

 

This solution sheet should not be used in lieu of legal advice. Any requests to reproduce this material, other than by individual victims for their own use, should be directed to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

ITRC Solution 23
Emergency Situations and Identity Theft

Hurricanes, tornados, fires, earthquakes and man-made disasters are frightening and cause a lot of chaos. Taking the time today to create an action plan might help you avoid future identity theft related situations.

Be prepared to evacuate. Keep photocopies of these items readily available, preferably in a sealed large envelope or a locked box.

  • Birth certificates for each family member
  • A current photograph of each family member
  • Driver’s licenses
  • Social Security cards for each family member
  • Death certificates
  • Insurance papers, wills, deeds, property records, and photos or video of personal belongings
  • Other vital papers for each family member, such as immigration papers, marriage licenses
  • Financial account information that might be needed in an emergency
  • Brief medical histories including medical equipment/supply need including style/serial numbers, all prescriptions and dosages for each family member.
  • Medical insurance cards.

Evacuation:

  • Place the box or sealed envelope in your car only when you are ready to leave. Be aware that thieves sometimes loot cars parked in driveways of those who are evacuating. You will need those papers to identify yourself with various assistance groups and with insurance companies.
  • Keep the locked box (or envelope) in sight at all times, even in a shelter. If necessary, remove these papers from the locked box and put them in a large plastic bag taped to your inner clothing. Don’t trust anyone, other than family members, to watch these documents.
  • Few people want to leave computers behind. If you are time-crunched or limited in space, remove the hard-drive and take that with you. It can always be put in a new computer. Many people are using “USB backup drives” for regular backups of critical information. These can be removed in a few seconds during an emergency. You may also want to carry an extra pair of glasses with you.

Avoid Scams:

  • “Phishing Scams”: Con artists pretend to call from a company that “lost data.” They will ask for bank account, credit card or Social Security numbers. This is always a scam. Companies will not contact you this way.
  • Relief Group Solicitations: Scam artists may pretend to be calling on behalf of a relief agency trying to raise donations. During a time of crisis, legitimate relief agencies are too busy attending to the immediate needs of victims. Only donate if you initiate the call to a well-established group. Hang up on any telephone solicitors asking for donations.

In most emergency situations, media will be a primary source of information alerting you on actions to take and scams to avoid.

Lost Information:

  • Should you conduct business with a company affected by the disaster, contact that company once they are allowed to return and determine if any of your identifying information (financial records, SSN, etc.) is missing. If so, ask what steps you should take.
  • Should you find documents that contain information that is of a sensitive nature, immediately turn it over to a local law enforcement agency.

 

This solution sheet should not be used in lieu of legal advice. Any requests to reproduce this material, other than by individual victims for their own use, should be directed to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

 

ITRC Solution 22
Medicare Cards and Social Security Numbers

Many consumers complain that while they remove their Social Security cards from their wallets, the Social Security number is still on their Medicare cards.

The ITRC would like to make the following recommendation. This simple tip could keep an identity thief from getting your Social Security number and protect yourself from becoming a victim of identity theft.

  • Photocopy your Medicare card, front and back.
  • Put your original card in a safe, locked area. Only carry it with you on the days you know you will need it.
  • Using scissors, cut the photocopies of your Medicare card down to wallet size, cutting off the last four (4) numbers of your Social Security Number.
  • Staple these two business card size papers together, adding a third blank paper to the packet.

On this blank sheet, write down following:

  • Emergency contact with the name and phone number of a person who can be reached in the event of an emergency. Your emergency contact person should have a sheet of paper with the last 4 numbers of your Social Security number and the following:
    1. Your pertinent medical history
    2. The name of your doctors
    3. A list of all the prescriptions you take, including over-the-counter pills.

 

This solution sheet should not be used in lieu of legal advice. Any requests to reproduce this material, other than by individual victims for their own use, should be directed to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

ITRC Solution 21
Check Washing 

Check washing is a simple, low-tech way to alter a check you have written. It is the chemical erasing of the handwritten parts of a check. The idea is to remove the ink while maintaining the overall appearance of the check and its preprinted items. The concern here is that these chemicals and solvents are readily available everywhere and with minimal knowledge, can be used to commit check fraud.

Once the “washing” has been accomplished, the payee and/or amount may be altered. Often times, the amount remains the same while only the payee is changed. This allows for it to pass by unnoticed when balancing your bank statement.

Tips for minimizing your risk of check washing include:

  • Do not put outgoing bills in an unattended or unlocked mailbox. If possible, take outgoing mail to your local post office. It is recommended you not drop your mail after the last pickup of the day.
  • Minimize the number of checks you write. Do your bill paying online on a secure computer. This minimizes the possibility of your checks being stolen through the mailing process. It's your responsibility to know where you are sending your payments online.
  • When writing out checks, use a gel ink pen (preferably black) so the ink will permeate the fibers of the check.
  • Do not leave blank spaces on the payee or amount lines
  • If you still have cancelled checks, shred them.
  • Review your bank statements immediately. You have a limited time frame in which to report fraudulent transactions. When fraud is detected, it is often necessary to report it within 30 days.
  • When possible, have your new checks delivered to your bank.

When ordering new checks, find out what security measures are being used by the manufacturer. These measures may include:

  • Chemical voids – this is a counter chemical measure to “washing.” This treatment of the check paper causes the word VOID to appear when washing solutions are used.
  • Security inks – these inks disappear, fade or stain when exposed to check washing chemicals such as bleach, water or other solvents.

Other security measures available, which do not pertain directly to check washing, include:

  • Watermarks – These marks (visible on one side or both) may be subtle design features not easily detected on the face of the check. This measure is difficult to duplicate and offers protection from photocopying and scanners.
  • Copy Void pantographs – A background of a check that, when photocopied, changes and the word VOID appears.
  • Microprinting or high resolution graphics – very fine print or intricate line detail which cannot be reproduced accurately by copiers or scanners.
  • Invisible fibers – fibers which are embedded in the check and only visible with special lighting.
  • Visible fibers – fibers readily apparent throughout the check.

 

This solution sheet should not be used in lieu of legal advice. Any requests to reproduce this material, other than by individual victims for their own use, should be directed to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

 

 

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