Tax Identity Theft Awareness WeekTax identity theft is a big deal, so much so that the FTC dedicates a whole week to bring awareness to the issue every year. Tax Identity Theft Awareness Week, which runs from Jan. 30 to Feb. 3 this year, is aimed to spread the word about tax identity theft and detail how consumers can detect warning signs and protect themselves and their families. While other types of identity theft are a headache to deal with, tax identity theft can be particularly frustrating, as I found out last year. To help you learn more about tax identity theft, we’re breaking down what this crime is, how you can protect yourself from it and what you can do if you realize you fell victim to the crime.

What is tax identity theft?

Tax identity theft is committed when someone files a tax return in your name with the hopes of stealing the refund. Even if you don’t usually receive a refund from the IRS, you can still fall victim to this crime because the thief usually does not use information from your legitimate income forms, like W-2s or 1099s. Tax identity theft is a big deal because it not only creates a hassle for the taxpayer because their legitimate return is denied by the IRS and cannot be accepted until the fraud is alleviated, but it also costs the government millions of dollars every year. For example, $227 million were claimed last year in fraudulent refunds, of which the IRS blocked $180.6 million, which means the government still lost $46.4 million to fraudulent refunds last year, according to a TIGTA study released on March 31, 2016.

While the government has taken steps to protect consumers from tax identity theft, like delaying the returns of people claiming the earned-income tax credit (EITC) and the additional child tax credit (ACTC), as reported by Forbes, there are still ways for thieves to commit fraud — some even use the IRS’ own tools — especially since we live in an age of data breaches and scams. Since that’s the case, it’s in your best interest to take steps to protect yourself from tax identity theft and know what to do should the unthinkable happen.

How can you protect yourself?

As a previous victim of tax identity theft, I can tell you firsthand that tax identity theft is something you’d don’t want to deal with, as it results in frequent and frustrating calls to the IRS, inconsistent information from different sources and no information about the status or progress for a long time. On top of that, you feel violated because you know someone out there has your social security number and other personal information needed to file a tax return, which still makes my stomach churn. As such, I would highly recommend you take the following steps to make sure you’re protecting yourself and your tax refund (if you receive one).

1. File as soon as you can. The best way to avoid falling victim to tax identity theft is to file your tax return as soon as you receive the necessary paperwork. The logic behind this is a thief can’t file a return in your name if you already filed a legitimate one. While delayed documents made filing early nearly impossible in the past, a new law requires employers to file their W-2s by Jan. 31, which means if you don’t have it yet, you’ll want to contact your employer to find out where it is. If you need to know the deadlines for other necessary tax forms, you can check the IRS’ website.

2. Make sure you’re filing safely and securely. This may seem like an obvious tip, but it’s an important one to follow, especially as we all tend to make occasional security mistakes. Before you file your return, you’ll want to make sure you’re using a tax filing service — regardless of whether it’s online or in person — that can be trusted with your information. Do your research on the service to confirm its legitimacy and take extra steps to protect yourself. For example, if you’re filing online, be sure to look for HTTPS at the beginning of the URL before you input any personal information and avoid checking on your return using public Wi-Fi. Paper filers should use certified mail to send their return because it will guarantee the IRS receives it, which is worth the extra fee you’ll pay to send it.

3. Follow up with the IRS after 21 days (for e-filers) have passed. The standard wait for a tax refund is 21 days for e-filers and 6 weeks for paper filers, according to the IRS, so if that time has passed and you did not receive your refund, you’ll want to contact the IRS to find out what’s going on. Hopefully there is just a minor delay, like they need to confirm your information, but it’s best to call and confirm, as calling to check in on my return was how I found out I was a victim of tax identity theft. Note that you should not contact the IRS before the standard wait for the tax refund, as the IRS will have no information and tell you to call back after the time has passed — in fact, one of the first questions an IRS agent asks is “Has it been at least 21 days since you e-filed?”

4. Be on alert for scammers. Tax season is a hot time of the year for scammers hoping to steal your tax refund, which is why you need to have your guard up if you receive a call from someone asking for your personal information or get an email from someone asking you to verify something, as was the case with the recent Gmail scam. Know that the IRS does not email or text taxpayers, and your first contact with the IRS will always be via traditional mail. As such, it’s wise to think twice before you provide any of your personal information to someone who calls you — remember that it’s better to be safe than sorry. When it doubt, your best course of action is to hang up the phone and call the company or government agency using a trusted source, like the official website or a business card.

What should you do if you fall victim?

If you’re one of the unlucky taxpayers who discovers you’ve fallen victim to tax identity theft, you’ll want to complete the same steps I followed last year. These include reporting the fraud to the FTC, filling out an Identity Theft Affidavit with the IRS, checking your credit reports, considering a fraud alert or credit freeze for your credit reports and keeping an eye on all of your bank accounts and credit cards, as there may be some fraudulent activity. In addition to completing these steps, you’ll also want to try to keep your cool. Learning you’re a victim of identity theft is beyond frustrating, but just know that patience and diligence with following these steps will help you alleviate the fraud.

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