Around this time of year, I'd rather focus on family and fun than identity protection, security, and taxes, but as they say "tis the season." If I learned one thing over the past few years, it is that the threat of a cyberthief targeting me increases the more I use my credit cards - online and in person. And, though preventing tax identity theft and, in particular, tax return-related ID theft is the primary goal of the IRS Security Summit, as part of our effort to protect you and your family, the "Taxes. Security. Together." page provides a series of messages that can help protect you and yours from much more than just tax ID theft or refund theft. In addition to those tips, last Friday at the conclusion of National Tax Security Week, IRS took the opportunity to remind taxpayers that to truly combat cyber thieves, we must all work together and focus on all types of identity theft and misuse. With that in mind, you may notice the following safeguards, which the tax industry put in to place for 2017, on social media platforms, financial institutions, and shopping sites:
- Stronger, more secure identity verification and authentication ‒ This means that you will have to go through more steps to prove that one, you are a real, live, human; and two, that you are the human you say you are. The process, known as two-factor authentication, may be cumbersome, but it is for your protection.
- Enhanced password requirements ‒ This means your password will have to be 8 or more characters long and include a combination of upper- and lower-case letters, numbers, and characters. Some businesses limit which characters you may use.
- Better communication across the industry ‒ IRS, state tax agencies, and industry stakeholders will share suspicious information, including email addresses, IP addresses, and other information from suspicious or known fraudulent activity to help others prevent attacks.
- Expanded W-2 Verification Code initiative ‒ Last year, payroll providers voluntarily participated, and the fraud rate was less than 5% on the approximately 2 million W-2s using codes. This year, the program should include more than 50 million W-2s. You may notice a code on your W-2. Your Tax Pro will use it when they prepare your return. If you DIY, then you will need to enter the code when you key in your wage information.
To support their security efforts, you should observe the following:
- Do not carry your Social Security Administration card or any document that includes your Social Security number on a general basis.
- Use anti-malware security software on all digital devices, computers, tablets, and mobile phones and by use, I mean run the scan once a week or more. Merely installing the software does not protect you; you must use it. Also, do not forget your mobile phone.
- Remain suspicious and avoid phishing scams. The tactics are endless, and thieves will try to trick you into disclosing passwords, SSNs, or account numbers by posing as companies, banks, or even someone from a government agency.
- Do not click on links in emails. Neither the IRS nor a tax software provider will ask you to update your accounts by providing an email with links. It's unlikely your credit card company will do this either.
- Always use strong passwords. It is best to make it long and complex using a mixture of numbers, letters, and special characters. Do NOT use the same password for multiple accounts. It's also a good idea to change your password often.
- Do NOT keep a list of passwords in an unprotected document on your devices.
When it comes to your taxes, data security is something you want to ask about when you meet or talk to your Tax Pro. Generally, tax preparation businesses have a plan to keep your data safe. However, you should not take that for granted; make sure they safely handle your data at all times. Ask about their policies, including the use of anti-virus and malware software, encrypting information when transmitting across networks, and ensuring their Wi-Fi and other devices are secure with strong passwords. For print materials, they should keep the information in locked cabinets and have a shredding policy so that old or unnecessary documents and other media are destroyed as soon as it is no longer needed. If you aren't using a Tax Pro to prepare your tax return, make sure you follow good security procedures when it is time to clean off your dining room table or throw out your shoebox full of receipts. For more information, you can read IRS Publication 4524, Security Awareness for Taxpayers.
If you do fall victim to tax identity theft, the IRS has enhanced their systems to help you set your records straight and enable you to file your return and get any refund you are entitled to. Check out their page, Identity Protection: Prevention, Detection and Victim Assistance.
Your personal information is one of the most valuable, if not THE most valuable, asset you own. As such, it is worthy of extra attention, caution, and protection, even if it is a bit inconvenient to do so. So, this holiday season, whether you are online or in line, be sure to pay attention to how and when you use your credit cards. Protecting your identity doesn't have to be hard: keep your online profiles secure, change your passwords often, choose two-step authentication when you can, and you can give yourself a gift - the gift of peace of mind, knowing that you're doing everything in your power to protect your identity.