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Though tax time may bring worries of audits from the IRS, many Americans should be more worried about identity theft. Last year, more than 1.1 million fraudulent tax returns were filed by identity thieves, according to the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
That number is up 21 times from just 2008, when 51,700 fraudulent returns were filed. The cost of those counterfeit returns is only set to grow in the coming years. The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration estimates that tax identity theft could cost the IRS $21 billion over the next five years.
"Tax time is among the most vulnerable for consumers with all of their most valuable personal information being compiled and shared," said Scott Mitic, CEO at TrustedID, which conducted the research. "The IRS must find a way to protect consumers from falling victim to this growing threat and work to develop a swift resolution for victims. Additionally, while the IRS has some trust with consumers, the growing number of tax identity theft cases creates a serious and growing gap between perception and reality."
Part of the growing fraud problem comes from the fact that people are not educated in how to keep their identities safe. In fact, more than half of consumers say the IRS is 100 percent responsible for ensuring no one else can file a return in their name or claim their refund. Additionally, more than 50 percent of respondents also say they still trust the IRS to keep their private information safe. Overall, it was found that two-thirds of consumers do not have a grasp of tax identity theft.
To help those consumers, TrustedID, a provider of security and identity theft protection services, offers the following tips to keep consumers safe.
- Monitor your tax documents closely — Make a list of everyone who pays you, including employers, banks and brokerages, and make sure you receive hard copies in the mail of what they send to the IRS.
- Beware of IRS-related scams — If you receive an email or phone call asking for your personal or financial information, delete it or send it to the FTC at email@example.com for investigation. The IRS will never email taxpayers about issues related to their accounts or ask for your Social Security number or financial details over the phone. If you have any doubt whether a contact from the IRS is authentic, call them directly to confirm it.
- Review carefully if filing with a third party — When using software, CPA or national tax agency to prepare your taxes, ensure you are reviewing all the information carefully and that all the original paperwork is returned to you.
- Be diligent if you are e-filing — With e-filing, evidence of fraud is difficult to find—there are no signed tax forms, envelopes or fingerprints. It's easy for criminals to e-file using a real name and SSN and a phony W-2 or Schedule C. If you're filing your taxes online, be sure to use updated firewall, anti-virus and spyware software.
- Take precautions if mailing your filing — If filing by mail, walk the envelope inside of the post office and hand it to an employee. Too much mail is stolen out of the USPS and driveway mailboxes. Send your return by certified mail so that you know it has arrived safely. This also sends a message to each mail carrier that they had better provide extra protection to the document they are carrying.
"Tax identity theft is a big problem that has grown exponentially over the course of a few short years," Mitic said. "The IRS has an obligation to increase awareness of this threat and consumers need to better familiarize themselves with the issue and how to protect themselves, especially since effective assistance might not be available once their identity has been compromised."