Q: What tax scams should I be watching out for this year?
A: Many in the cybersecurity business refer to tax season as “Christmas for Criminals,” because of the amount of sensitive personal information that will be in circulation.
The IRS reported a nearly 400 percent surge in phishing and malware incidents in the 2016 tax season over the previous year, and you can bet there will be at least as many scams this year.
Fraudulent returns continue to top the list of scams, because once a thief acquires your Social Security number, electronic filing makes it easy.
In fact, the problem has gotten so big that the IRS will be delaying refunds for all taxpayers until Feb. 15 this year in order to give them more time to screen for fraud.
Start with your computer
One the easiest ways for thieves to steal your personal information is directly from your computer if you aren’t paying attention.
Programs designed to sneak in and silently monitor your keystrokes (aka keyloggers) or steal your email credentials won’t announce themselves.
If your computer takes forever to startup or seems to be “stuck in the mud” when you try to use the internet, these are clear signs that unnecessary processes are running in the background of your computer.
Since you’ll be working with a lot of sensitive information via your computer, whether you’re preparing your own return or gathering information for a tax preparer, make sure your computer is free of any potential malware.
If you aren’t comfortable running through the various processes yourself, make sure you find someone you trust to do a thorough checkup/cleanup before you get started.
Don’t send sensitive info via email
Email has replaced the fax machine for sending documents, but it’s one of the least secure methods of transferring sensitive information to your tax preparer.
Not only can your unprotected information be intercepted by others; a record of your sensitive information gets stored in your email program unless you remember to delete all your sent items.
Check with your tax professional — they should have a more secure method for you to share electronic documents.
Watch for phishing and phone scams
One of the many known phishing messages pretends to be from the IRS, asking you to update your e-file account to make sure you get your refund.
The IRS will never send you an email message or call you; it only communicates with taxpayers via U.S. mail. You can report any IRS phishing scams by forwarding the message to firstname.lastname@example.org.
File early to beat fraudsters
Fraudulent tax returns continue to be a billion-dollar expense for the Treasury Department, but one of the ways you can avoid becoming a victim is file as early as you can, to beat them to the punch.
If someone files a fraudulent claim before you, it can take an average of over 300 days for you to get the mess straightened out. If you believe you’re a victim of ID theft, call the IRS Identity Protection Specialized Unit at 800-908-4490.
Ken Colburn is founder and CEO of Data Doctors Computer Services. Ask any tech question on Facebook or Twitter.