4 ways to prevent identity theft

Q How can I protect myself from identity theft?

A Identity theft is a growing problem in the United States. Criminals steal personal information to commit fraud and other crimes. According to the IRS, some thieves swipe a taxpayer’s Social Security number and use it to file a phony tax return and claim a fraudulent refund. Then, when the taxpayer files his legitimate return, the IRS rejects it. The taxpayer must work with the IRS to correct the situation, obtain his refund when applicable and repair his records. This requires a lot of time and effort. In the best-case scenario, the taxpayer must wait at least six months to get his refund.

There are several ways to reduce your risk of identify theft, including:

1. File your tax returns early. Identity thieves generally file early in the season to ensure that the IRS will process their fraudulent returns and distribute the refunds before the legitimate taxpayer has the chance to file. The earlier you file in the season, the harder it will be for a crook to assume your identity and file first.

2. Keep hackers off your computer. Install firewalls and antivirus protection software to safeguard your private information. Be careful with your Social Security number and any passwords for the Internet, such as online banking, Amazon.com and other Web commerce sites. Never purchase any product from a website if the URL does not begin with https://. Never send an email with the word “password” in the subject line—hacker programs scan subject lines for specific words in order to swipe this kind of info.

3. Protect your tax return online. Your tax preparer should send your tax return only through a secure, password-protected Internet portal that requires authentication by the taxpayer to be accessed.

4. Shred important documents. You don’t want to take the chance of someone poring through your trash for sensitive data like Social Security numbers, birth dates or credit card info. Also, check your credit reports regularly with Equifax, Experian and TransUnion if you’ve fallen victim to identity theft.