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Little-known form of identity theft is a big problem

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Thieves are stealing personal information to grab tax refunds — here’s how to protect yourself

By STEVE FINKELSTEIN and MEGAN GEHRMAN

What if you waited and waited for a tax refund that never showed up? What if you discovered that money you’d been expecting was sent to someone else instead? What if, instead of a refund, you received a notice from the IRS demanding additional taxes — on income from an employer you’d never even heard of?

That is exactly what happened to an acquaintance who recently described her nightmarish experience to the Sterling Team. And she is far from alone: many Americans are falling victim to tax-related identity theft, also known as stolen-identity refund fraud.

A tax identity thief uses someone else’s name and Social Security number (SSN) or Taxpayer Identification number to file a fraudulent tax return and claim a refund. When the victim files his real taxes later in the season, he discovers that a return has already been submitted under his SSN, and a refund was sent to someone else. If he discovers it, that is — thieves frequently target people whose income doesn’t require filing a tax return, leaving some victims unaware that it even happened.

Though not widely familiar to the public, tax identity theft has taken off, becoming so lucrative that drug dealers are reportedly turning to it as a means of easy money. It jeopardizes the financial futures of millions of Americans, robs the U.S. Treasury of billions of dollars a year and can be just the first indication to victims that their lives are about to be turned upside down.

We hear more often about identity theft associated with credit cards, but the kind involving taxes may actually be more common. It accounted for 43 percent of identity theft complaints made in 2012 to the Federal Trade Commission.

How can you avoid becoming a victim of tax identity theft? The best way is to file your taxes as early as possible, experts say. Once you file, a thief can’t file and collect a refund under your name.

Filing early isn’t always an option, especially for folks who don’t have the cash in hand to pay Uncle Sam. But don’t just cross your fingers, wait until April and hope for the best. If you can’t file fast, here are six steps you can take to lower your risk of tax identity theft.

1) Secure your mail

Waiting on a W-2 from your employer, a 1099 from your brokerage account interest or a 1098-E documenting your student loan interest? An identity thief might be waiting for them, too, and that “Tax Documents Enclosed” notation on the envelope makes it easy to tell which documents to pilfer. Consider installing a locking mailbox, having your mail held at the post office until your documents arrive or getting a post office box and changing your address on file with your employer and financial institutions.

2) Access tax documents online

Many banks, financial planning firms, even payroll processors offer electronic documents. By accessing these documents early – using safe Internet-security measures such as strong passwords and secured WiFi – you may be able to avoid receiving documents through the mail.

3) E-file your return

Filing via the Internet lets you receive fast and free notification that your return has been accepted. It will also give you early warning if a problem is detected. If you do send your return through the mail, do it directly from the post office.

4) Be proactive

If you’ve already experienced some form of identity theft, even if it’s not tax ID theft, take some time to report it to the IRS via its Identity Theft Affidavit (Form 14039). The form will alert the IRS to be extra careful when processing returns from your account and may prompt follow-up actions, such as issuing you an Identity Protection PIN to accompany your taxes. If you believe your SSN has been compromised, contact the IRS ID Theft Protection Specialized Unit at 1-800-908-4490 (irs.gov/uac/Taxpayer-Guide-to-Identity-Theft).

5) Respond promptly to all mail from the IRS

Know the IRS will get in touch only through the post office — not via e-mail, text, or social media. “Phishing” scams (phony e-mails that look like they’re from the IRS or other official source) are one trick thieves use to obtain victims’ personal information.

6) If you hire a tax preparer, do your research

Some thieves access victims’ information through dishonest tax preparers. Get recommendations and research a preparer thoroughly before you hand over personal information.

Taking these steps may add a few hassles to your tax season, but nothing is more time-consuming and painful than undergoing an IRS audit to prove that you are who you say you are – and that some stranger who filed in your name is not.

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Steve Finkelstein, CFP, is president and financial advisor, and Megan E. Gehrman, CFP, is financial advisor at Sterling Retirement Resources, Inc., in St. Louis Park. For information, contact 763-762-3400, e-mail: scf@sterlingretirement.com, or visit: sterlingretirement.com.

Securities and advisory services offered through Cetera Advisor Networks LLC Member FINRA/SIPC. Cetera is under separate ownership from any other named entity.

(American Jewish World, 2.28.14)

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