(ARA) - Tax time has a reputation for being almost universally stressful. As the looming April deadline closes in, Americans are concerned with getting their taxes done correctly and on time. As financial information starts to fly between individuals, tax preparers and the IRS, concerns about personal security are rising.
In late January, the federal government conducted a nationwide sweep to crack down on identity theft and tax fraud before the 2012 tax season. The timing of the effort was meant to stem the rising tide of fraudulent tax activity, which involves using stolen identities to file for tax refunds. In 2011, the IRS found as many as 260,000 identity theft fraud attempts, up from 49,000 in 2010.
While the IRS is taking action to help taxpayers avoid identity theft problems - ranging from cutting down on the use of Social Security numbers on IRS-generated notices to providing YouTube videos about fraud prevention - it's important for individuals to take steps to protect themselves.
To help cut back on your chances of identity theft during tax season - and year round - keep these tips in mind:
* Take digital precautions. Our increasingly digital world doesn't stop when it comes to taxes. With online filing opportunities and commonly used budgeting software, a lot of financial and sensitive identity information is on your computer. Make sure that you're using secure programs, anti-virus protection, firewalls and strong passwords - and be sure to change your passwords frequently.
* Keep an eye on your credit. Your credit report serves as snapshot of your financial profile, and it's one of the first places fraudulent activity will show up. Consider subscribing to a credit monitoring service like Equifax Complete that provides 24/7 credit monitoring and alerts you about key changes to your credit file. Equifax's Lost Wallet assistance feature also gives you access to fraud resolution specialists, in case you should become a victim of fraud. More information is available at www.equifax.com.
* Be email savvy. Anyone who's looked at an IRS form knows that they are not a casual organization. In keeping with that, they don't send out emails asking for information. If the IRS wants more information from you, it'll be a formal request, so if an email shows up in your inbox, claiming to be from the IRS, don't click on anything - but be sure to report it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Understand tax fraud indicators. In addition to monitoring your credit, you need to be aware of the signs that identity theft tax fraud has occurred. Keep an eye out for IRS notices or letters saying that more than one tax return was filed for you or that IRS records show you've received wages from an employer you don't know. If you receive a notice from the IRS, respond as soon as possible and file an IRS Identity Theft Affidavit.
Happiness or frustration during tax time can go beyond whether you get a refund or have to pay in. Keep yourself protected against identity theft and you can be assured that your tax season will be simpler and safer.