Don’t Get Your Identity Stolen During Tax Season

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As if there’s not enough stress around tax time, cybersecurity experts are calling attention to a growing problem: Identity thieves are using this event to snag unsuspecting taxpayers’ personal information, and they’re constantly inventing new ways to trick the unsuspecting. “The terrible thing about identity theft is that it’s not any one thing,” says Dale Dabbs, president and CEO of identity theft protection firm EZShield. Crooks have an ever-growing list of tactics, and this time of year, they’re pulling out all the stops to snag the important data that’s floating unsecured around offices, hard drives and email accounts. 

As it has for the past dozen years, identity theft topped the FTC’s annual list of consumer complaints last year. Nearly 280,000, or 15%, of all complaints fielded by the commission pertained to identity theft. Of those, a quarter pertained to wages or taxes. Dabbs says this number is on the rise because an increasing number of people choose to e-file, but don’t take steps necessary to protect their information.

(LIST: 10 Valuable Tips for Tax Season)

Protect your laptop and make sure your wireless connection is secure, he advises. Password-protect sensitive files on any computer you take out in public, and keep antivirus, malware and firewall software up-to-date. Don’t send any important personal information over an open wi-fi connection; to a hacker, that’s like leaving hard copies of those documents on a table somewhere and walking away.

PrivacyGuard, an identity theft protection company, surveyed 500 taxpayers and uncovered some alarming data: 40% of respondents believe the IRS could contact them via email, mail or phone. The IRS never uses email to contact people, so any message that claims to be from the agency is fraudulent. Delete it, and don’t click on any links or attachments it includes.

(MORE: Crooks Prey on Unsuspecting Credit Card Customers)

This figure is a little better than last year, when half of respondents believed the IRS could mail, phone or email them, but it’s still a huge knowledge gap that scammers exploit with impunity. Dabbs says phishing operations blast out emails that claim to be from the IRS and demand information. A person could be intimidated, or just unaware, and unwittingly give criminals the key to their identity. If there’s ever a question as to whether any kind of correspondence claiming to be from the IRS is legit, call them up and ask.

Offline, your tax information can still be a tempting target for identity thieves. For taxpayers who snail-mail their returns, Dabbs recommends taking that envelope directly to the post office. Leaving it in an unlocked mailbox could expose your identity. PrivacyGuard suggests using a micro-cut shredder, rather than a standard crosscut model, to destroy documents. (And don’t just throw those documents in the trash.) Don’t leave forms with your Social Security number laying around at the office, and walk out of any tax prep office if you see other people’s paperwork laying out in plain view.

MORE: Oh, the Irony: Identity Theft Prosecutor Is Hacked