You have seen the recent news articles highlighting scams to steal identities using scare tactics: The woman bilked out of $500 by a phone scammer claiming she was delinquent in past taxes; the woman who was told she owed IRS $2,000 and if she didn't pay the money within 24 hours she would be picked up by the local police and jailed for six months; the man who received an e-mail telling him to update his IRS files immediately by just following the link to comply -- and lost all of his vital bank account information; even the recently naturalized citizen who received a phone call demanding personal and account information to pay an IRS debt or a local federal immigration agent would be sent to deport him.
All of these are very real and frightening scams, aimed at stealing money and identities of people, like you. Today's scams use more sophisticated tactics than the previously favored e-mail scam asking people to send money for someone in need in a foreign country. Today, these sophisticated scams show "IRS" on the recipients caller ID, include a uniformed "police officer" arriving in person to reinforce the threats, or even email taxpayers from websites that look just like the real thing.
What can you do to protect yourself?
There are some very simple steps you can take to better safeguard or lock your most important asset -- namely your personal information and financial security.
Simple steps if you feel you are being targeted, especially via phone or email. First, verify the phone call or e-mail. The IRS, other federal government departments and state and local governments will not initiate collections or information gathering with a phone call. Do NOT give money or personal or financial information to a telephone caller or email sender. Just do not do it -- EVER. Instead, get all the information you can, including the name of the caller, the phone number from the caller or caller ID as well as a call-back number from the caller, and the name of the government department or the organization supposedly calling you. Then HANG UP the PHONE! Yes, hang up and call the public number listed for that department or organization -- it is easy to find in your phone book or using the Internet on your computer to look it up. For example, the IRS toll-free number is 800-829-1040 and your local police department number is listed in the phone book or can be found online under your county government's website. So the first easy way to prevent ID theft over the phone or email is to take 10 minutes and verify the identity of the caller or sender. If they are legitimate (unlikely that it is), they will NOT mind you taking a moment to verify. All of the agencies I work with are fine with you taking a moment to verify and prevent the growth of identity theft crime. If the caller gives you any pushback, that is another key indicator of identity theft. So beware of phone or email pressure to ACT NOW. It is likely fake.
If you have been contacted by e-mail, do NOT click on any links. Clicking on the link can activate a virus on your computer that goes through your computer files and activities and collects your personal information. Scams involving e-mail, known as phishing, generally have an address that is similar to an actual website address such as IRSgov instead of irs.gov. If you receive a suspicious e-mail that appears to be from the IRS, forward the e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you feel that you are a victim of an identity theft scam, file a complaint at www.ftc.gov.
Identity theft is everywhere and takes many forms and new scams are appearing every day. Here are some additional tips to protect yourself:
- Don't carry your Social Security card, or any other identification with your Social Security Number, in your wallet or purse. Instead make a point of bringing it with you only when it is needed.
- Don't give out your Social Security number without verifying it is necessary.
- Don't give out your personal information unless you initiated the conversation or you verify the person/company requesting the information.
- Don't put your personal information on the internet. Once the information is out there it is hard to get it back, and ID thieves now how to collect the pieces of information and put them together.
- Check your financial accounts monthly and immediately report any unauthorized activity in your account. Look for small amounts, but many times and monthly.
- Check your credit report with each of the three main agencies annually.
- Secure your personal information in your home.
- Protect your personal computers, tablets, and smart phones with anti-spam/anti-virus software.
- Change your passwords on all of your accounts at least once a year and preferably more often. Even though a headache -- it will save you much pain later.
Identity theft is one of the fastest growing crimes nationwide and it is only getting bigger every day. According to top industry specialists, almost everyone's personal information has ALREADY been stolen in one form or another, and will be again soon, it is just a matter of time. Protect yourself now and in the future, because prevention is much simpler than having to go through the repercussions of having your identity stolen. After all, If your plan is "it will not happen to me," you may need to consider a better plan.