Even in the age where it seems everyone and everything is connected digitally, I know some folks who refuse to electronically file their taxes.
Some are just cranky old Luddite farts (they know I still love them!). Other e-file resistors, however, are afraid that somehow their personal tax and financial information will be stolen by identity thieves.
Those fears appeared to be justified when the U.S. Government Accountability Office, or GAO, released a report Nov. 29 announcing that through September, the Internal Revenue Service had identified almost 642,000 incidents of identity theft for this year alone.
This, said the GAO report, is "a large increase over prior years."
The thing is, though, that the ID thefts weren't connected to e-filing per se. Security-wise, the system whereby taxpayers send the IRS their returns seems to work quite well.
The problem, notes Benjamin Souede, an attorney with Angeli Law Group LLC in Portland, Ore., is what other people send to the IRS pretending to be you.
Here's what happens. A crook somehow gets your personal information, either via a tax scam or some other nefarious means, and then files a fake tax return as you. The criminals either use your accurate data and claim your rightful refund or they enter false amounts that produce a refund.
Either way, the IRS thinks it's you. Then when you go to file your real return, the tax agency says, "Wait a minute. We've already processed your return and sent you your refund."
And you get to spend all your free time convincing Uncle Sam that both he and you were victims of tax fraud.
The good news is that the IRS is getting better at catching such falsely filed returns.
The bad news is that the filing system is slowed down for us all, as the agency implements ever more stringent anti-fraud protocols during tax return processing.
The worst news is that some fake returns still make it through.
Shopping and ID theft season
And during the hectic holiday shopping season, you could be setting yourself up for an unwelcome tax surprise in a few months. The personal data that scammers collect now can be used to file a false tax return in a few weeks in your name.
Wait. Aren't we all pretty cautious about identity theft scams by now? Sort of.
"Most people have enough common sense to avoid scams," says Souede, "but we tend to get seasonally stupid. Common sense loses out to the frenzy of looking for deals and making bargain purchases."
The number one sign that something might be a scam is that the offer is too good to be true. "But we're expecting to find deals on Black Friday or Cyber Monday that are exceptionally good," says Souede.
"Plus a lot of people only buy online one time a year, this time of year, so they're not so attuned to the potential for scam and fraud," he says.
So if you make it through this holiday shopping season without any surprise purchases showing up on your credit card bill -- other than those from your spouse! -- good for you. But don't let your guard down.
The identity thieves might just be biding their time until tax-filing season rolls around. In that case, about the only way to beat them at their criminal game is to file your real return before a crook files a fake one as you.
And if you do find your personal data have been compromised, now or any time of the year, it's not a bad idea to let the IRS know, too.
You can call the IRS Identity Protection Specialized Unit at 1-800-908-4490 or send in the IRS Identity Theft Affidavit, Form 14039. With this information, the IRS can mark you as a potential victim of identity theft and tag your tax account to identify any questionable activity.
That way the IRS can correspond with you before further processing the tax return to make sure the agency will be sending your refund to you and only you.
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