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Lane Keeter, CPA

Partner: Tax Consulting, Estate Planning, and Heber Springs Managing Partner

Beware of Identity Theft During the Holiday Season

Ah, it's the holiday season, when glad tidings, peace, and goodwill abound!  Unfortunately, scammers and identity thieves don't take a holiday break, and in fact, tend to crank up their criminal activity a bit this time of year. 

Because of this, the IRS and its Security Summit partners dubbed the week following Thanksgiving weekend as National Tax Security Awareness week, saying that the combination of the holiday shopping season, the upcoming tax season, and the pandemic create more opportunities for criminals to steal sensitive personal or financial information. 

"Don't let this be the most wonderful time of the year for identity thieves," said IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig. "The approach of the holidays and tax season increases the risk for taxpayers and opportunities for criminals. We urge people to be extra careful with their personal and financial information during this period while shopping online or getting suspicious emails or texts. Taking a few simple steps can keep people from becoming victims of identity theft and protect their sensitive personal information needed for tax returns and refunds."

With a view to helping protect against identity theft as well as help safeguard sensitive tax information that criminals can use to try filing fake tax returns and obtaining refunds, here are 10 basic steps everyone should remember during the holidays and as the 2022 tax season approaches:

Don't forget to use security software for computers, tablets, and mobile phones; and keep it updated. Protect electronic devices of family members, especially teens and young children.

Make sure anti-virus software for computers has a feature to stop malware, and there is a firewall enabled that can prevent intrusions.

Phishing scams like imposter emails, calls and texts, are the No. 1 way thieves steal personal data. Don't open links or attachments on suspicious emails. This year, fraud scams related to COVID-19, Economic Impact Payments and other tax law changes are common.

Use strong and unique passwords for online accounts. Use a phrase or series of words that can be easily remembered or use a password manager.

Use multi-factor authentication whenever possible. Many email providers and social media sites offer this feature. It helps prevent thieves from easily hacking accounts.

Shop at sites where the web address begins with "HTTPS". The "s" is for secure communications over the computer network. Also, look for the "padlock" icon in the browser window.

Don't shop on unsecured public Wi-Fi in places like a mall. Remember, thieves can eavesdrop.

At home, secure home Wi-Fis with a password. With more homes connected to the web, secured systems become more important, from wireless printers, wireless door locks to wireless thermometers. These can be access points for identity thieves.

Back up files on computers and mobile phones. A cloud service or an external hard drive can be used to copy information from computers or phones, providing an important place to recover financial or tax data.

Working from home? Consider creating a virtual private network (VPN) to securely connect to your workplace.

It is important to remember that these security measures should include mobile phones, something that people sometimes can overlook. Scammers have become more adept at compromising mobile phones. Phone users also are more prone to open a scam email from their phone than from their computer.

You can check out security recommendations for your specific mobile phone by reviewing the Federal Communications Commission's “Smartphone Security Checker”. Since phones are used for shopping and even for doing taxes, remember to make sure phones and tablets are just as secure as computers.

The IRS points out that during the pandemic, there continue to be numerous scams related to COVID-19. These can be attempts to gain sensitive personal or financial information. The Federal Trade Commission also has issued alerts so consumers can keep atop the latest scam information and report COVID-related scams.

The IRS, state tax agencies, and the private-sector tax industry, including tax professionals like me, are working in partnership to help protect taxpayers from identity theft and refund fraud. But the best protection of all is a diligent you!

Lane Keeter, CPA, is Office Managing Partner of the Heber Springs office of EGP, PLLC, CPAs & Consultants (a full-service financial firm with offices in Heber Springs, North Little Rock and Bryant) and past winner of The Sun-Times Reader's Choice Award for Best Accountant

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