Tips: Keep Confidential Information Safe During Tax Season
With a down economy causing Americans to re-evaluate their finances, many are looking forward to a tax rebate check in the mail this spring. Few, however, are worried about identity theft, a crime that impacted nearly 8.1 million Americans and on average cost victims $1,865.27 out of their own pockets in 2007.
In a new national survey, sponsored by Fellowes Inc., a shredder manufacturer, nearly half of Americans (48 percent) say they are more concerned about their tax refund and making mistakes on their returns than falling victim to identity theft (15 percent).
Identity thieves will be out in full force this tax season, counting on individuals that are distracted from protecting their confidential financial information. Changes in filing methods also may give people a false sense of security, causing them to believe their personal data is protected.
"No matter how you choose to file your taxes, identity thieves are looking to prey on unsuspecting victims during tax season," said Jay Foley, executive director of the Identity Theft Resource Center. "A large amount of confidential information changes hands this time of year and while more Americans are filing taxes online, new technology shouldn't fool them into thinking they are protected against the crime."
The Internal Revenue Service reported that more than 86 million taxpayers filed taxes online during the 2008 tax-filing season, a 12 percent increase from the previous year. However, while filing online or e-filing continues to grow in popularity and hard copy returns become a thing of the past, Americans still send and receive a large amount of sensitive information on paper documents, such as W-2 forms, old pay stubs and investment information, which can leave them vulnerable to identity theft.
It's essential to properly store and destroy these paper documents after use. According to the survey, a majority of Americans (78 percent) report accumulating a shoebox full of paperwork during tax season, yet only 20 percent say they shred their back-up paperwork once they are done filing taxes.
"Shredding is one of the easiest ways to get rid of confidential information you no longer need and is a vital step toward protecting your identity during tax season," says Nancy Heaton, senior global marketing manager at Fellowes. "Shredding will not only protect against the crime, but will help keep you more organized during an already hectic time of year."
In addition to shredding, below are several helpful tips consumers should consider this tax season to ensure their confidential information is protected.
- Regularly check the mailbox for W-2 forms and other documents containing sensitive information that arrive by mail. If you don't receive these documents by Feb. 15, contact the IRS for assistance at (800) 829-1040 as missing forms may be an indication that an identity thief went through your mail.
- Choose a tax filing service you are familiar with. The IRS doesn't offer software or direct filing, but it provides a list of approved companies at http://www.irs.gov/efile.
- Make sure personal computers are protected with updated firewall and secure software systems, which contain antivirus and anti-spyware programs.
- If you are storing important tax-related documents on your computer, change your passwords frequently between December and April.
- Ensure that every Web site you are using during tax filing is encrypted to protect personal information when transmitted.
- Send completed tax returns from a locked mailbox or the post office. If mailing from home, do not put the mailbox flag up. This only alerts identity thieves that there may be an outgoing check in the mail.
- Make sure tax forms, backup documents and enclosed checks are not visible from the outside. Try wrapping your forms in an extra sheet of paper to disguise the contents of the envelope.
- Shred any backup documents once you've filed your taxes online.