At the current time, one in 14 Americans aged 16 or older have been a victim of identity theft in the past 12 months. That equates to more than 16.6 million people – a sobering statistic. While 86% of victims cleared up the resulting credit and financial problems in less than one day, 10% of victims had to struggle with the issues for a month or more.
Tax time is a prime time for identity thieves. They would love to get their hands on your return and to claim a phony refund using your personal information. E-filing of tax returns is becoming increasingly popular – just make sure you use a secure Internet connection. When you e-file, you aren’t putting your Social Security number, address and income information through the mail. If you can’t bring yourself to e-file, then consider sending your returns via Certified Mail. And, make sure to put the rough drafts of your returns through a shredder.
The IRS does not use unsolicited emails to request information from taxpayers. If you get an email claiming to be from the IRS asking for your personal or financial information, report it to your email provider as spam.
Another precaution to take is to be very careful using Wi-Fi networks. Don’t risk disclosing financial information over a public Wi-Fi network. A favorite hacker trick is to sit at a coffee house, library or airport and set up a Wi-Fi hotspot with a name similar to the legitimate one. Inevitably, people will fall for the ruse and log on and get hacked.
Look for the “https” when you visit a website. When you see the “s” at the start of the website address, you know the site has active SSL encryption. A padlock icon in the address bar confirms an active SSL connection. You can also opt for a virtual private network (VPN) service which encrypts 100% of your browsing traffic but it could cost you around $10 a month.
Make sure you check your credit report on a regular basis. You are entitled to one free credit report per year from each of the big three agencies. Another tip is to choose passwords that are really esoteric and preferably with number as well as letters to make them tougher to hack.
A final bit of information is to be careful talking to strangers. If you get a call or email from someone you don’t recognize telling you you’ve won a prize, and claiming to be from the county clerk’s office, a pension fund or a public utility – be skeptical. You could be doing yourself a big favor!