With Halloween coming up in a few days, October is a good time to think about spooky things that can frighten you financially. Topping the list: identity theft, which is a $10 billion problem impacting millions of Americans.
Unfortunately, a savvy cyber crook can take identity theft to a whole new level, stealing your sensitive personal information, financial data and even your tax refund check using little more than a laptop, a computer mouse and some well-honed hacking skills.
Besides the fact that identity theft is happening online more than ever, there’s another reason to consider your online financial security: October is National Cyber Security Awareness Month.
With these facts in mind, here are four ways to avoid ID theft, and stay financially safe.
Step #1: Remove your Social Security card from your wallet
If your purse or wallet contains your Social Security card, you’re asking for trouble, according to Adam Levin, a privacy expert and the chairman of Identity Theft 911.
Should your wallet get stolen, or you even briefly leave your purse unattended (at work, at social events, etc.), all a crook needs to do is get a peek at your Social Security number and write it down. They don’t even have to steal the card, so you might not know anything is amiss.
But just like that, you’ve given a criminal easy access to your SSN, which is the most important element s/he needs to make you the victim of identity theft.
Be careful too about other cards you keep in your wallet, like Medicare cards or others that may include your Social Security number.
“Find a way to bifurcate the [Social Security] number, or black it out,” Levin suggests.
Step #2: Store bank records and tax data in a secure location
Levin says that many people put all kind of sensitive tax data on their home or work computers, and then they fail to safeguard the information in any way.
“They don’t encrypt their computer or store it in a safe location. They finish their work and just leave it there. But if this stuff is sitting there, someone could easily come along and steal your data,” Levin says.
“Never ever store tax files on the cloud or an Internet drive or your own desktop,” he adds. “Save it and encrypt it in an encrypted thumb drive.”
You should also always have strong user names and passwords for your online accounts.
Step #3: Be selective about who handles your tax forms
Doing your own taxes can be complicated. So it’s understandable to want to use an expert or a paid tax preparer to fill out all those IRS forms. But tread carefully if you’re using a mom and pop tax firm or some local business that you really don’t know.
Sometimes, “there are fraud rings that actually operate as if they’re legitimate tax preparation companies,” Levin notes. He explains that these firms will often emerge “like a pop up store” just in time for tax season.
“The problem is, people go in to get their taxes done and they give up their information, but a few days later these businesses leave,” Levin says. “That’s pretty scary,” because it’s not until weeks later—typically when taxpayers haven’t received a refund check—that customers realize the sham company isn’t even there anymore.
To avoid this fate, stick to better-known tax preparation businesses. Also, before doing business with any company you don’t know, be sure to check out the organization with the Better Business Bureau.
Likewise, take precautions when you’re letting an online firm prepare your taxes.
You might enter the URL or website address of a business you think you know, but fraudsters who want to collect a lot of people’s Social Security numbers have been known to re-direct consumers to clone sites.
“Then people think they’re working with a legitimate tax preparer and they’re not,” Levin says. “So you really need to take your time and pick the right tax company. If a person chooses convenience over security, that’s when you run into trouble.”
Step #4: Guard your mail and your trash
One favorite tactic of identity thieves is to steal your mail or paperwork you throw out that contains your personal information. Some identity thieves love go to “dumpster diving” in your trash; others will simply swipe your mail in order to get credit card account numbers, tax records, or your social security number.
So don’t just throw away financial records. Instead, shred those documents. And be on the lookout for your mail on days when you expect important items, like a paycheck or an IRS refund check.
A locked mailbox can also help. But an even better alternative, Levin recommends, is to always opt for direct deposit for tax refunds, your paycheck or other monthly payments you may get from Social Security, unemployment or any public assistance agency.
“This way,” Levin says, “at least thieves won’t be able to get your refund in the mail.”