The Internal Revenue Service has released its annual dirty dozen tax scams and identity theft remains No. 1 for the third year in a row. Others on the list of scams include persuasive phone scams, phishing, returns prepared fraudulently, impersonating charitable organizations and claiming false income.

What is tax identity theft?

Tax identity theft occurs when an identity thief steals someone’s personal information to file a phony tax return. They can then claim the refund before the taxpayer has a chance to file a legitimate tax return. Victims usually aren’t aware a fraudulent tax return has been filed in their name until they attempt to file their own taxes and are alerted of the fraudulent return by the IRS.

How can tax identity theft be prevented?

Similar to identity theft in general, there is no sure way to prevent tax identity theft, however there are steps that taxpayers can take to lessen their chances of being a victim. One of the best ways to avoid tax identity theft is to file tax returns as soon as you receive all of the necessary tax forms. By filing taxes early, taxpayers are giving identity thieves less time to file a fake tax return in their name. Here are some more ways that taxpayers can help protect themselves from tax identity theft.

Is there a way to avoid tax scams in general?

Most of the scams detailed on the IRS’ dirty dozen — such as telephone scams, phishing scams, impersonating charities and promises of free money — can be avoided if a taxpayer follows the steps detailed below.

1. Don’t click on unfamiliar links in emails: Most people fall for phishing scams by clicking on an unfamiliar link or accidentally entering their personal information into a phishing website designed to steal a person’s information. The best way to avoid this scam is to not open any emails from an unfamiliar sender or click on any unfamiliar links. Also remember that the IRS does not communicate with taxpayers via email, so any email received from the “IRS” should immediately be marked as spam.

2. Research charities: A lot of taxpayers donate to charities to help out an organization or cause that they’re passionate about. These donations can often be written off on a tax return, as long as it’s a legitimate organization. The problem is that thieves are creating fake charities or posing as a charity in order to steal people’s money. One way that taxpayers can avoid giving money to a fake charity is to verify its legitimacy with the Better Business Bureau — a nonprofit organization that works to build marketplace trust through reliable reviews about a variety of businesses and organizations — and always donate money through the charity’s website to make sure the money makes it directly to the organization.

3. Know who is asking for personal information: Telephone scams occur when an identity thief calls a potential victim while posing as a legitimate company with the hopes of gathering all of the person’s information. To avoid this scam, taxpayers should make sure they know who is asking for their information. If the person on the phone is saying they’re from a doctor’s office or the IRS, then the taxpayer should not provide any information. Instead the taxpayer should hang up the phone, find the business’ phone number (using Google or any professional directory, such as the WhitePages) and call the business back. If the company, doctor’s office or government agency can verify that they need to gather the caller’s information, then the taxpayer can continue to provide the necessary information.

4. Remember money is never free: It’s easy to get excited over the idea of possibly getting free money, however taxpayers need to remember that money is rarely ever free. If you receive a call or email claiming that someone will give you money for free, ask questions about the company and why you are getting the money. If the person doesn’t have any answers, it’s more than likely a scam.

5. Be skeptical: The most important thing for taxpayers to remember is to be skeptical of anything that seems too good to be true or of anyone who’s asking for any of their information. They shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions and say no to anyone pressuring them to provide personal information.

Even though tax scams are something that taxpayers should worry about during tax season, the reality is that anyone can fall victim to any of these scams throughout the year. Use the steps detailed above to protect yourself from scams year round, and learn more identity protection tips on the identity theft protection blog.