Whether you file your taxes yourself or work with a preparer, it’s absolutely critical to protect your personal information. Before you enter your Social Security number, review these 6 tips to help you protect your identity online.
1. Get an Identity Protection PIN from the IRS
Starting January 2021, the IRS is expanding its Identity Protection (IP) PIN opt-in program. The IP PIN is assigned to eligible taxpayers in an effort to safeguard their Social Security numbers and reduce the risk of fraudulent tax returns. In order to obtain an IP PIN, you must be able to verify your identity by answering a series of questions. For those that are unable to verify their identity through the IRS’s online tool, there are other ways to obtain the PIN, which include filling out a form 15227 or going to the IRS Taxpayer Assistance Center and providing additional forms of identification.
2. File your taxes early
If you choose not to opt into the IP PIN program or are unable to obtain a PIN, file your taxes as soon as possible. The IRS only accepts one tax return per Social Security number. If you file yours first, any potential scammer trying to file as you will be rejected.
3. Use a secure network
The network you use to access the internet is the basis of your online security, yet it’s one of the most commonly overlooked vulnerabilities. You should never file your taxes or access sensitive information while using a public network, as these tend to be more vulnerable. Hackers are more likely to target public networks than personal ones.
4. Create secure, unique passwords
When creating passwords, never choose one that would be easy to guess or includes personal information. Always create a unique password for each website, using a combination of letters, numbers, and special characters. Tools like LastPass can help you generate a strong password and keep track of all of your logins.
5. Be skeptical of all contact claiming to be from the IRS
Always beware of scams and learn to recognize emails or phone calls that are from scammers claiming to be the IRS. Two of the most common types of scams come after your taxes are filed. One involves scammers claiming there is an issue with your return, requesting personal information. The other claims you have an outstanding tax bill, which must be paid immediately over the phone or direct payment method to the scammer. The IRS will never leave prerecorded, urgent, or threatening messages; use text messages to communicate personal information, or initiate contact with taxpayers via email. The main method of communication with the IRS is regular mail via USPS.
If you’ve been contacted by a scammer or are unsure whether a contact from the IRS is legitimate, always err on the side of caution. Report the incident to email@example.com, or use the IRS Impersonation Scam Reporting web page. When in doubt, never open any links or attachments. Don’t respond to threats that require you to purchase gift cards or threaten your liberty in exchange for cash. Verify any request before providing information or sending money.
6. Beware of ghost tax preparers
Before you hand off your personal documents to a tax preparer, online or in person, do your research. Although the majority of tax preparers provide an honest service, we hear reports every tax season about ghost tax preparers targeting unsuspecting individuals. Ask questions, request references, and read reviews. If you feel any bit of uncertainty, move on. You can always verify a tax preparer’s legitimacy by searching the individual’s name in the IRS’ public directory of federal tax preparers. However, if you get to the point where a preparer has completed your turn but refuses to sign and file it, run away. A common tactic used by ghost preparers is to complete your return and instruct you to file it.
IRS scammers are always evolving their tactics and preying on public fears. We saw unprecedented levels of scams in 2020 related to COVID relief measures, and we have no reason to believe these will stop. The good news is that the IRS pours resources into protecting taxpayers and publicly reporting scams as they arise. Follow the six tips above to help protect your own information, and report anything suspicious. You can also check with your tax preparer if you’re unsure about any communication you receive from the IRS.