Everyday actions increase risk of tax scams

While it’s tax season, it’s also unfortunately open season for scam artists looking to steal your personal information. The Washington state attorney general’s office and the AARP Fraud Watch Network have launched an educational effort to help people protect themselves from tax scams.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, Washington ranks 25th in the nation in identity-theft complaints. And according to a recent AARP state study, some everyday behaviors are putting many Washington taxpayers at risk.
“Throwing a pay stub in the trash may seem easier than finding a shredder, but the risk of having your tax refund stolen is just too great,” says AARP state director Doug Shadel. “The AARP Fraud Watch Network is urging all Washingtonians to file early so you can beat con artists to the punch.”
In one identity-theft scheme centered around tax time, scammers electronically file a tax return under someone else’s name to collect their refund. All they need is a birthdate and Social Security number, and many taxpayers make their personal information easy pickings by:
• Failing to lock their mailbox. Over one-third of Washingtonians receive their mail in an unlocked mailbox or mail slot at home, which leaves them open to a criminal stealing bills, tax forms and other documents that contain personal information.
• Leaving valuables exposed. Nearly 57 percent of Washingtonians left at least one valuable personal item in their car in the last week (a purse or wallet, paystub, laptop) that could be used to steal their identity.
• Failing to destroy personal information. More than 19 percent of Washingtonians say they never shred any of the personal documents that could be used to steal their identity.
Tips on how to protect yourself and your family from tax identity theft include:
• Mail tax returns as early in the tax season as possible, before the cons beat you to it.
• Don’t give out personal information unless you know who’s asking for it and why they need it.
• Shred personal and financial documents.
• Know your tax preparer.
Also be on the lookout for the IRS imposter scam. In this intimidating and sophisticated phone scam, callers claim to be IRS employees and say you owe taxes. They might also threaten to arrest or deport you if you don’t pay, know all or part of your Social Security number, rig caller ID to make it look like the call is from the IRS, and tell you to put the money on a pre-paid debit card and tell them the card number.
The IRS doesn’t call to demand immediate payment for taxes owed without first sending you a notification by mail. They also won’t ask for credit or debit card numbers over the phone, or threaten to bring in local police to arrest you for non-payment.
“Consumers must take care to watch out for tax scammers who will not hesitate to steal identities and help themselves to tax refunds,” said state Attorney General Bob Ferguson. “Protect your personal information and spread the word about this tax season scam to your friends and family.”
Ferguson advises that if consumers have any doubts about a call they receive, they should hang up and call the IRS directly at 1-800-829-1040 or go to www.irs.gov.
Consumers should then report the call with the U.S. treasury inspector general for tax administration at www.treasury.gov/tigta/ or 1-800-366-4484, and with the Federal Trade Commission at www.ftc.gov/complaint or 1-877-FTC-HELP.
Washingtonians are also encouraged to visit www.aarp.org/taxaide (1-888-227-7669) for information about AARP Foundation Tax Aide, the nation’s largest free, volunteer-run tax preparation program. Each tax season, Tax Aide helps millions of low- to moderate-income taxpayers — especially those 60 and older — get the credits and deductions they deserve.
For fraud-prevention tips, visit www.aarp.org/fraudwatchnetwork or call the AARP Foundation Fraud Fighter Call Center at 1-800-646-2283.
To learn more about the state attorney general’s consumer protection work, visit www.atg.wa.gov.

Jason Erskine, who wrote this article, is the communications director for AARP Washington.