How to protect yourself against identity theft this tax season

Emma McGowan 20 Feb 2023

Maintaining a watchful eye is crucial in the ongoing fight against identity theft.

Filing your taxes is already a drag, but finding out that someone has already filed a fake tax return in your name and is trying to steal your refund? That just takes the cake.  

Tax-related identity theft is when someone uses your personal information like your Social Security number to file a fraudulent tax return in your name. Not only do you have to deal with fixing the mess, but there's also the added worry that the scammers might have enough of your personal info to open credit cards or loans in your name -- or even get into your online bank or credit card accounts. Eek.

The Federal Trade Commission hosts Tax Identity Theft Awareness Week every year in order to help people learn about this issue and get tips on how to avoid it, usually via webinars.

One way the IRS helps people avoid tax-related identity theft is by giving them an Identity Protection Personal Information Number, or IP PIN. It's a unique six-digit code that eligible taxpayers can use when they file their tax returns. By including the IP PIN, you can make sure your return is processed correctly and that any refund goes to you instead of a scammer who might have filed a fake return in your name.

To further protect yourself against tax-related identity theft, you can also: 

Keep an eye out for signs of identity theft 

There are several signs that you may be a victim of tax-related identity theft. It's important to be aware of these signs so that you can take action as soon as possible. 

  • You try to file your tax return electronically and the IRS says that someone has already filed a return using your Social Security number. 

  • You file your tax return by mail and receive a letter from the IRS stating that they have already received a return under your name.

  • You receive a notice from the IRS saying that you created a new online account on their website, but you know that you didn’t. 

If you receive any of these types of notifications, it's important not to ignore them. Tax-related identity theft is a serious issue that will not resolve itself on its own. It's important to take action as soon as possible to protect yourself. 

Report the identity theft ASAP  

If you find out you're a victim of tax-related identity theft, you should take action right away. Here's what you can do: 

  • Complete IRS Form 14039, the Identity Theft Affidavit. This is the form taxpayers use to report fraudulent returns to the IRS. You can complete the form on the IRS' website, print it out, and attach it to your paper tax return. Then mail both to the IRS following the instructions on the form. 

  • Request a copy of the fraudulent tax return from the IRS. You can do this by going to their page on dealing with fraudulent returns and following the instructions to order a copy. 

  • Report the crime to the Federal Trade Commission. This will help them track down and stop scammers. 

  • Contact the three national credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion) to place a fraud alert on your credit reports. Consider freezing your credit with all three bureaus. This means that lenders, credit card companies, and other financial institutions can't pull your credit without your permission. It'll also make it harder for scammers to take out new loans or open credit card accounts in your name without the bureaus contacting you first. 

  • Report the crime on

Check your other accounts  

After you've alerted the IRS and credit bureaus about the identity theft, make sure to check your online bank and credit card accounts for any unusual charges or withdrawals. The person who used your personal information to file a tax return in your name might also have accessed your online credit card portal and bank accounts.  

See if your bank or credit card offers alerts for every time your account is accessed, or if you can set up two-factor authentication for an extra layer of protection. You can also make it a habit to check your accounts daily so that you catch any suspicious charges and let your bank and credit card providers know right away. They can close your accounts to stop further fraudulent activity. The faster you report it, the less likely it is that you'll have to pay for it.  

You can also order copies of your three credit reports. During normal times, you can get one from each of the national credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion) for free once a year.  

Once you get your reports, check them carefully. They'll list any open credit or loan accounts in your name. If you see any you don't remember applying for, it could be a sign that someone used your personal information to take out loans or open credit cards in your name. 

Get an IP PIN to protect yourself from tax-related identity theft  

The IP PIN is a unique six-digit number that the IRS assigns to you and is used when you file your tax return. It can help verify that it is you submitting the return and makes it harder for criminals to file a tax return in your name, as they would need to know your IP PIN in addition to your name, Social Security number, and address. 

To obtain an Identity Protection Personal Identification Number (IP PIN) to protect yourself from tax-related identity theft, you can take the following steps: 

  1. Set up an online account with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). 

  2. Once you have an account, visit the IRS's online Get an IP PIN tool to sign up. 

  3. Provide your email address, Social Security number or Individual Tax Identification number, tax filing status, mailing address, and a financial account number linked to your name (such as the last eight digits of your credit card, the account number on your mortgage or home equity loan, the account number of your car loan, or the account number of your home equity line of credit).

If you’ve already been the victim of identity theft, the process for obtaining an IP PIN is even easier. The IRS will automatically mail you a CP01A Notice with a new IP PIN each year, or you can view it online if you have an account with the IRS. Please note that the IP PIN is valid for one calendar year and will need to be renewed annually. Obtaining an IP PIN may require an extra step, but it can be a valuable tool in protecting yourself from tax-related identity theft. 

Keep your personal information private 

One of the most important ways to avoid tax-related identity theft is to protect your personal information. This means being careful about who you share your Social Security number, address, date of birth, and other sensitive details with. Scammers often use a tactic called phishing to try and get this information. They might send you an email that looks like it's from your bank or credit card company, saying they need to verify your account and asking for your Social Security number or account number.

Another phishing tactic is an email pretending to be from your bank, saying they'll close your account unless you click on a link. When you click the link, you're taken to a website that asks for your account number, name, address, and Social Security number. If you give this information, the scammers can access your online financial accounts, take out loans in your name, and file a fraudulent tax return. 

Remember that legitimate companies will never ask for your personal or financial information through email. If you get an email like this, it's from a scammer. Delete the email immediately and don't click any links. To further protect yourself, you might consider using two-factor authentication or setting up account alerts for your online financial accounts. This can help you catch any suspicious activity as soon as possible. 

Stay vigilant 

Maintaining a watchful eye is crucial in the ongoing fight against identity theft. These crimes can be a major hassle to deal with, as you may need to cancel and replace credit cards, keep track of your bank accounts, and review your credit reports to ensure that no unauthorized accounts or loans have been taken out in your name. It's important to be aware that these types of crimes are still quite common, so being vigilant is essential. 

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