While most of us don’t consider it a guardian of our money, the IRS shut down attempts to collect nearly $200 million through fraudulent tax returns last year. The truth is that even while the agency collects our money, it also applies significant resources to protect us from getting scammed.
Still, those three letters inspire fear in many Americans, and crooks use that to their advantage. Criminals prey on taxpayers by pretending to be the IRS – and by claiming refunds that rightfully belong to you and me, and/or gaining access to our bank accounts.
It can happen to anyone. A couple of years ago, a family member submitted his tax return and was shocked when the IRS notified him it had already received one. It took months to fix the mess the fraudulent return caused. Recently, I’ve talked to a number of USAA members who’ve been caught up in these nefarious schemes, with outcomes ranging from large headaches to much worse.
Here’s a five-step plan to keep your bank account safe and stay in good stead with the IRS and your financial institution:
- Safeguard your personal and account information. Don’t carry your Social Security number with you, and lock it away at home. Be wary online, especially when using a public Wi-Fi connection, and shred all sensitive documents.
- Add an extra layer of security. Many banks and financial services providers allow you to add a rolling security code or text-generated notification to your phone. Those can protect you even if a crook cracks your password.
- Ignore phone calls and emails from the IRS, even if they seem legitimate. Like other financial institutions, the IRS will not call or email you about financial matters unsolicited. If you suspect a scam, call the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration at 1-800-366-4484.
- File early. If a fraudster files a tax return in your name, you’re in a better position if the real submission is already in.
- Play it safe. Have questions about a call, letter or inquiry? Go to the source by calling the IRS at 1-800-829-1040. Don’t use a number provided by a third party.
When you call the IRS, you may be on hold for a few minutes, but consider this while you’re waiting: in addition to answering calls and processing tax returns, the IRS is busy protecting taxpayers from fraud.
J.J. Montanaro is a certified financial planner with USAA, The American Legion’s preferred provider of financial services. Submit questions for him online.