Common sense protects info during tax season

Common sense protects info during tax season

(RNN) - Taxes are among the constant things in life, but the tax-related issues people deal with are constantly changing.

Thieves continually devise scams to steal tax information, and the numbers show they are getting better at it. Identity theft last year rose 47 percent from 2014, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Figures from the IRS showed tax-related identity theft more than doubled in that period.

There are some simple, common-sense steps the IRS and tax experts recommend to prevent tax ID theft - or at least try to minimize damage if it happens.

The IRS has laid out tools at various places on its website, including a checklist to reference before, during and after filing taxes.

Even when using a paid professional to prepare returns, there are things every person needs to make sure they address.

Housecleaning items

Clean your computer - No, this doesn't mean picking food out of the keyboard or wiping dust off the monitor. Using virus/malware protection software to perform a deep scan on your computer before doing taxes can prevent a phishing scam from stealing information. If someone else prepares your taxes, don't be afraid to ask if they do this.

Clear hard drives - Before discarding an old computer, hard drives should be wiped (a term for completely deleting contents) to prevent info from getting into a stranger's hands.

Guard your identity

Digital tax forms - Software for file encryption and virus/malware protection are essential when storing tax documents on a hard drive. Think of this as a safe and key for your computer, only cheaper.

Paper tax forms - If you prefer the traditional preparation method, invest in a lock box instead of stuffing documents in a shoe box or folder.

Be proactive - Everyone is entitled to one free credit report each year from each of the major reporting bureaus - Equifax, TransUnion and Experian. It's a good idea to space out those three credit reports over the course of the year so you can always have an idea of any activity and take prompt steps to address something that doesn't look right.

Choosing tax preparers - Laws that affect taxes change constantly. If the person handling your return is still beaming about that certification earned in 1990, it could be a red flag. The IRS has an online directory of trusted tax professionals, and annual training is a big part of making that list.

Handling identity theft

Don't wait - Even if you suspect something may be wrong, you can contact one of the credit bureaus (which will report to the other two) and request a 90-day fraud alert. This is a good step if your wallet or any card containing personal info is stolen.

Credit freeze - The next step is restricting access to your accounts, a smart move if you're part of a data breach or some other large-scale criminal activity. Unlike a fraud alert, you must contact all three credit reporting bureaus and pay a fee.

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