Be wary of thieves posing as IRS agents and tax preparers, UGA expert says

IRS will not initiate contact by phone or email

Athens, Ga. – Tax season is the time to be vigilant about identity theft, said Laura Heilman, a security awareness training and education manager in UGA’s Enterprise Information Technology Services office.

Thieves can file fraudulent tax returns with stolen identities. The problem is so prevalent, Intuit, the parent company of the tax preparation software TurboTax, briefly halted processing e-filing of state tax returns last week amid concerns about fraudulent filings with stolen personal information.

“When a criminal files your taxes first, the burden of proving that you are the legitimate taxpayer falls on you, and it can take months, or even years, for you to receive the return you are entitled to receive,” she said.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, tax identity theft accounted for almost one third of the more than 300,000 identity theft complaints it received in 2014. Georgia is among the top states in the nation for cases of income tax identity theft.

In a recent case in Georgia, a single offender was charged with stealing more than $5 million in tax refunds. He did so by tricking thousands tax payers into providing their personal information and their Social Security numbers.

Heilman warns that identity thieves may pose as IRS agents and tax preparers, setting up online advertisements and websites to trick taxpayers into giving away their Social Security number or filing a fake tax return.

“They gather your information by digging through your trash for discarded bills and financial information,” she said. “They intercept your mail. They lurk on unsecured wireless hotspots to intercept your electronic tax return. They bribe employees who have legitimate business access to your personal details. They prey on the elderly and military service members. They even steal Social Security numbers from children and the deceased.”

There are some signs legitimate taxpayers may be a victim of identity theft, according to Heilman. They include:
• Receiving a letter from the IRS stating that more than one tax return has been filed under a taxpayer’s name.
• Receiving a notice or bill for unpaid taxes on wages a taxpayer did not earn.
• A listing by the IRS showing employers where the taxpayer did not work.

“If you think someone has stolen your identity, file an IRS Form 14039, Identity Theft Affidavit before you file your tax return,” Heilman said. “It will flag your account and make it harder for an identity thief to steal your tax refund. Spouses who file jointly need only file a Form 14039 for the affected individual.”

There are steps to avoid becoming a victim of identity theft. They include:
• Not carrying a Social Security card or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number. Likewise, avoid providing a Social Security number or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number whenever possible.
• Protecting personal computers by keeping software and antivirus programs up to date, along with a firewall in place for additional security.
• Using a password to access any computer or mobile device that may contain personal financial and medical information.
• Keeping physical copies of personal financial and medical information secure, and shredding documents when no longer needed.
• Avoiding accessing or sending personal information when using an unsecured Internet connection.
• Avoiding posting any personal financial and medical information online or in the cloud unless you encrypt it.
• Checking your credit reports at least once a year to make sure everything is accurate.
• Filing your tax return as early as possible.

“The IRS will not initiate contact with you over the phone or in an email,” Heilman said. “First contact from the IRS comes in the mail. If you get a letter from the IRS in your physical mail you should respond at once. If you get an unsolicited email or a phone call from the IRS it is highly likely to be a scam.”

Those who receive a suspicious email from the IRS, should not reply to it or click on any links or attachments in the email, Heilman said. The suspicious email can be forwarded to phishing@irs.gov.

“If you receive a phone call from a person claiming to be an IRS agent, do not give them any details about your finances or personal information,” Heilman said. “Write down details about the caller, such as telephone number, badge number and name. Then, hang up and contact the IRS at 1-800-366-4484 to determine if the caller was an IRS employee.”

The Office of Information Security at UGA has more information on identity theft and phishing scams available at infosec.uga.edu. The Office of Information Security is a part of the university’s Enterprise Information Technology Services. For more information, see eits.uga.edu.