By Julie Myhre-Nunes, NextAdvisor.com
Falling victim to identity theft is never a fun situation to find yourself in, as I recently discovered when I learned my personal information was used to file a fraudulent tax return. Now that everything has been taken care of and things are starting to pan out, I'm sharing the lessons I learned to not only help other victims of tax identity theft, but also to inform non-victims of the problems I faced so they can learn from the experience -- and pass along this information to others. After all, education is one of the best defenses against scams and fraud. That said, here are three things I learned from falling victim to tax identity theft.
1. Follow up on everything. Calling the IRS and learning of the fraud was just the tip of the iceberg, as the unfortunate reality of dealing with a government agency -- or any organization for that matter -- is you have to follow up on everything. This means I not only had to spend another hour calling the IRS, but I also had to check in on my state tax return, which ended up needing some extra attention as they were unable to confirm my employer (they couldn't confirm whether this was the result of the fraud or other reasons). In addition, I also had to make calls to my credit cards and bank to let them know I've been a victim of identity theft and request that they make a note on my accounts so they'll take extra steps to verify my identity before making any changes to the account or completing an in-person transaction.
It should be noted that the one aspect of the theft that I didn't need to follow up on was the fraud alerts, as the credit bureaus each mailed me notices to let me know the alerts have been set. Following up is a good idea any time you have an issue regarding your credit or identity, so you can be sure order has been (or is in the process of being) restored.
2. Be skeptical. While I've always been a skeptic about anything or anyone asking for my personal information, I'm even more skeptical now. Whenever I receive anything in the mail that asks me to mail something back or call to provide information, I opt to confirm the accuracy of that company by checking it out for myself (using Google -- not the website listed on the paperwork) to make sure it's legitimate. For example, I finally received a notice from the IRS explaining that I was a victim of tax fraud and instead of calling the phone number on the letter to follow up, I opted to use the phone number that I was given by the IRS agent when I first learned of the fraud. While the number on the letter was likely legitimate, the skeptic in me, which is more alive now than it was before, said to not trust it.
The one thing I'm finding myself struggling with is remembering that not everything is a scam and I should not write it off as such. This is where following up comes in. To check the legitimacy of a notice, email or phone call, I do a quick Google search to see what I can find. If it's an email, I search the email address; for a notice, I search the company/organization and address and for phone calls, I search the phone number. When it's a scam, which a couple of the phone calls have been, the page titles will read something like "Beware: This is Scam!" On the other hand, if it's legitimate, the titles either link to the company's page on Yelp, the Better Business Bureau or other similar sites. The essential thing to remember is that not everything should be taken at face value, and a quick search may save you from the headache of identity theft or fraud.
3. Security is more important than you think. As I detailed in my first post about the theft, I've always been someone who has taken steps to protect my identity, from enabling two-step authentication on everything I could to disabling geolocation on my phone and everything in between. While some of my family members and friends have made comments to me that I'm being too careful, it very well may be that these security steps helped limit the damage that was done by the fraud. Since there's no way to find out how my information was breached, it's hard to prove these security steps helped. That said, they definitely didn't hurt. As such, I encourage everyone -- whether you're a victim of identity theft or not -- to take some steps to protect your identity. While nothing can completely prevent identity theft, avoiding security mistakes in your everyday life will go a long way toward making you more informed and prepared.
Keep up with our identity theft protection blog to learn more about identity theft and other steps you can take to protect your identity.
This blog post originally appeared on NextAdvisor.com.