Identity thieves want your Social Security number (SSN) so they can assume your identity and commit fraud. It’s relatively easy for someone to fraudulently use your SSN to gain access to your bank account, credit accounts, and other sources of personal information. Identity thieves also can establish new credit and bank accounts in your name, or use your SSN for employment purposes or to obtain medical care. Therefore, it’s wise to limit access to your SSN whenever possible.
Privacy Rights Clearinghouse’s newly-revised Fact Sheet 10 "My Social Security Number: How Secure Is It?" (http://www.privacyrights.org/fs/fs10-ssn.htm) explains how your SSN is used, when you are required to provide it, when you should not provide it, and how to protect it. Around tax time, protecting your SSN takes on even greater importance. The Information Returns that you receive (Forms W-2 and 1099) as well as your IRS income tax return (Form 1040) will all contain your SSN. Each of these forms, if not handled properly, presents an opportunity for your SSN to be used fraudulently.
Tax season offers consumers a number of methods for completing their returns. Taxpayers have a choice of filing by mail or electronically. Consumers may use personal software, professional services, or old-fashioned pen and paper. Either way you can bet there is a fraudster ready with a scam. The following tips can help protect your privacy:
- Pay particular attention to missing or lost W-2 or 1099 forms. These tax forms contain your SSN. If you are not using a locked mailbox or P.O. Box, a missing form could be a warning that you are at risk of identity theft. If you think that you might be a victim of identity theft, see our Fact Sheet 17a, Identity Theft: What to Do if It Happens to You available at: http://www.privacyrights.org/fs/fs17a.htm
- If you are filing by postal mail, send the mail from a secure location, preferably before the last scheduled pickup time. In other words, don't leave your mail in a collection box overnight. (Thieves have actually been known to steal the entire box by chaining it to a pickup truck, yanking it off its moorings, lifting it into the truck bed, and speeding off into the night.). Never leave important outgoing mail in your mailbox or at any other unsecured location for your letter carrier to pickup. Anyone might come along and steal your mail along with your personal information. See our Alert at http://www.privacyrights.org/ar/PostalW2.htm
- If you are filing online, make sure that your spyware and anti-virus definitions are up to date. Then, check your computer for viruses and spyware. Be sure that you have a firewall installed. The Federal Trade Commission offers information and resources for keeping your computer secure available at: http://onguardonline.gov/index.html
- If you are using a walk-in tax preparation service, examine the facility carefully to see how well your privacy and personal information will be protected. Can other people overhear your conversations? Are computer monitors visible to prying eyes? How will your documents be secured? Are discarded documents properly shredded?
- When throwing out old records that are no longer needed for tax filing (after the IRS record retention period expires), be sure to shred anything containing your SSN or other personal info. Home shredders can be purchased in many office supply stores. Use a crosscut or confetti shredder. Strip cut shredders should be avoided, as the strips can easily be pieced together.
- Watch out for any e-mail claiming to be from the IRS. It is most likely a phishing scam. The IRS does not initiate taxpayer communications through e-mail. If you receive an e-mail from someone claiming to be the IRS or directing you to an IRS site, do not reply or click on any links contained in the message. Instead, go to http://www.irs.gov/privacy/article/0,,id=179820,00.html?portlet=5 for more information.
For additional tips on how to protect your SSN and your privacy, see our guide at, http://www.privacyrights.org/fs/fs10-ssn.htm#17.