With tax-season done and dusted there will always be important lessons a person can learn during this annual process. As technology becomes more advanced, cybercriminals will stop at nothing to make sure their cunning schemes impact their easiest targets. It’s not as easy recognizing what could be a tax fraud, but the Defender asked Amegy Bank’s Treasury Management Division Manager and fraud prevention expert, Ken Smiley, to share tips to help you recognize fraud indicators and protect consumers’ assets against fraudster schemes in the future.
1. Store personal documents in a safe space
Personal documents, such as Social Security cards, bank account and credit card statements, tax documents, passports, driver’s licenses, etc. contain information that can be used to perpetrate identity theft. Social Security cards and passports should be stored in a safe place or safety deposit box. With the case of a driver’s license, keep it on your person or in a secure place. Purses and computer bags are often targets for car break ins and grab-and-dash thefts that happen in seconds, so don’t let them out of your sight. For account statements and tax documents, store them in a safe place or better yet, go green and only receive statements through your bank’s online service or tax preparers site. Invest in a good shredder for all documents and statements that need to be disposed.
2. Use a well-known reputable tax service or preparer
According to the IRS, any tax professional with an IRS Preparer Tax Identification Number is authorized to prepare federal tax returns. However, tax professionals have differing levels of skill, education and expertise. Generally, there are three types of professionals that can prepare a tax return: enrolled agents, certified public accountants and attorneys. At www.irs.gov, one can search for ways to verify the status of an enrolled agent. Do your research and do not simply respond to an email advertisement. Remember, any link in an email or text can harbor a virus, malware, etc. (Reference: www.irs.gov).
3. Don’t engage with online scammers and hang up immediately on scam calls
Online scams, whether through email, text, social media posts or other messaging services are rampant. In addition, phone scams, especially targeting the elderly, are on the rise. My advice is to never click on a link in an email, text, social media post or messaging service unless you have confirmed, by phone, the person is who they say they are. Use the contact information you have stored on your phone or elsewhere to contact senders. If you do not have that information, avoid clicking on any link. Email, phone number, social media account and messaging service takeover is unfortunately easy to perpetrate. People are often fooled into thinking they are engaging with someone they know or can trust. If you feel something is off, stop engaging.
4. Regularly check your physical mailbox
Mailbox theft has caused the Post Office to remove or stop using all the big blue mail drop boxes on their property. Checks, credit card numbers and other personal information are contained in the millions of bills sent through the mail daily. Criminals survey neighborhoods and steal mail from mailboxes daily. Outgoing mail, including bill payments, and incoming mail, including credit card statements or tax payments, are at risk of being stolen and contain the information used to perpetrate fraud. For those who require a physical mailbox at their house or apartment, invest in a sturdy mailbox with a lock. Checks are easily reproduced or washed, so it is best to not pay by check unless necessary. Most banks have free bill payment services for consumers and most utilities, apartments, mortgage companies, etc. have electronic means of payment. Try to eliminate sending checks out into the public.
5. Be careful and cognizant of who is around you when checking the status of your tax return
Shoulder surfing is all too common. This is when someone peers over your shoulder or uses other ways to view and steal your personal information when looking at tax documents, credit cards or at an ATM. Shoulder surfing is also a problem in public places like coffee shops and public transportation where many use their electronic devices. Be especially diligent when signing into your email, bank account sites, etc. when in public. Always know your surroundings and be cognizant if there are people around. Invest in a VPN or other secured access method because using a public Wi-Fi is not safe when using your personal laptop, phone or tablet.
For more tips regarding how to protect yourself and your business from fraudsters, click here.