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Security experts have warned consumers for years that their smartphones could be an easy gateway to their identities.

Think of it this way: a thief grabs your phone or someone picks it up in a coffee shop where you’ve left it. If you haven’t passcode protected it or it was still unlocked, they now have access to your email, your Amazon app, your PayPal app, your social media apps, your mobile wallet, and more, all with a few simple password changes.

Clicking “forgot my password” provides them with a link that’s sent to your email or phone number, which they now have access to. A quick browse through your social media might even provide them with the answers to your security questions, such as your mother’s maiden name and the town where you were born. They change all of your passwords and go on a spending spree, all while locking you out.

But experts are now warning about an entirely new threat involving your phone. Phone hijacking, as it’s been called, is technically a form of account takeover. A thief walks into a mobile carrier store and pretends to be you. With a few simple steps, they upgrade your account and walk out with a couple of brand-new iPhones. You only discover the problem when your real phone stops working because the number has been transferred to those new phones…or when the bill for those phones arrives.

This might sound like a random crime of opportunity, but the reality is smartphone hijacking doubled in 2016, and the damage from all forms of account takeover reached well over $2 billion that year.

How are thieves pulling this off? First, there’s a lot of information about consumers floating around “out there.” Seemingly harmless information like your email address and cell phone number aren’t so harmless when a criminal gets just a couple more pieces of information. If you’ve used your email address as your cellular account username, it only takes buying your data off the internet to see if you’ve reused an old password.

Stealing or buying other pieces of data like your medical account information can also help a thief hijack your phone. After all, these records often include a Social Security number, your date of birth, address, email address, and other pertinent details, which could be enough to recreate a driver’s license and convince a cellular employee to upgrade your phone.

To fight back against this kind of crime, consumers have to be prepared to adopt some proactive habits. First, this is precisely why you never reuse a password. In data breaches like the MySpace breach or the Yahoo breach that compromised a database of years’-old information, those old passwords can come back to haunt you if you’re still using them.

Next, it’s absolutely vital that you take action the second you spot something out of the ordinary. Some victims of phone hijacking have reported that they received “changed password” emails from their providers, or that their phones quit working right. Those are giant red flags that must be addressed immediately.

Finally, do not make the mistake of thinking, “Well, it’s just a phone. We’ll figure it out later.” As mentioned above, your phone contains a lot of access to the rest of your identity. Don’t dismiss these warning signs without following through.

Contact the Identity Theft Resource Center for toll-free, no-cost assistance at (888) 400-5530. For on-the-go assistance, check out the free ID Theft Help App from ITRC.

New advancements in how we file have made the process a little less painful, but have also left the door wide open for hackers, scammers, and identity thieves.

Filing your taxes is probably pretty low on your list of favorite activities, wedged somewhere between dentist appointments and changing a tire on the side of the road. But it’s not really the arduous chore it used to be.

There are a number of tips to keep in mind as you file your state and federal taxes. These suggestions are meant to protect your data when you file, but can also work to secure your refund if your information has been compromised in the past.

1. Filing early

Complete your tax return and off your to-do list as soon as you can. Not only will you sleep a little better knowing it is finished, but you stand a better chance of beating a thief to your refund. Tax return fraud has grown exponentially in the past few years, in part due to the abundance of stolen identities available for sale online, so the best way to prevent it is to get your return filed before a thief can do it for you.

2. Knowing your preparer

Whether you use a walk-in tax preparer or have an accountant who handles your returns, ask questions about who can see your data and where it ends up. Keep in mind that a number of identity theft rings that have been broken up over the years were using tax prep services as a “front” for their real business. If you let someone else handle your sensitive documents, make sure they have a solid, long-standing reputation, and make sure you ask serious questions about where your information will be stored.

3. Filing yourself

If you handle your own taxes, you still have to watch out and secure your information. How? By making sure that the return itself is safe. If you prefer paper-and-pen forms that you’ll send through the mail, do NOT mail it from your curbside home mailbox. Drop it in a blue postal service box, or even better, take it to the counter of your local post office. If you file online, make sure you’re only doing so over secured wifi—as in, not your local coffee shop’s public wifi connection—and look for the HTTPS designation at the front of the IRS’ web address.

4. Remembering that your state taxes are under attack, too

If you’ve been a victim of identity theft or tax return fraud, or if you’re just concerned that it could happen to you, don’t overlook state return fraud. We tend to think of the IRS refund as the major payout and it usually is, but the potential for fraud at the state level is just as likely. In fact, since scammers can file returns using your information in multiple states, it may be an even bigger problem than people realize. Get your state return filed as soon as you can, and be on the lookout for notifications that there’s an issue with your return in a state you’ve never even visited, let alone worked in.

5. Destroying it!

With all of the new advancements, it’s easy to overlook the good old-fashioned tools of the identity theft trade. Shred any documents or receipts that you will no longer need in connection with your tax return, and keep a close eye on your mailbox so your necessary tax forms don’t wander off. If you don’t receive your forms in a timely way, it’s possible they were stolen, so check with the sender to confirm that they had been sent.


Watch the Free Webinar hosted by the ITRC & FTC 

Hosted by the Identity Theft Resource Center and the Federal Trade Commission, this webinar will discuss the warning signs of tax identity theft, how tax identity theft happens, common scams related to taxes, and what to do if you become a victim.

Click here to download a copy of the Tax Identity Theft Webinar presentation.

Contact the Identity Theft Resource Center for toll-free, no-cost assistance at (888) 400-5530. For on-the-go assistance, check out the free ID Theft Help App from ITRC.