Although identity thieves don't lurk around every corner, you can never be too careful about protecting your personal information. That includes the hordes of data you provide the government on your tax return, from your annual income to your Social Security number.
Lawmakers on the House of Representatives committee that oversees tax laws recently approved a bill with two items designed to help consumers avoid and cope with identity theft.
The first allows the IRS to contact a taxpayer if the agency, while investigating some kind of tax fraud, finds out that a person's identity has been or might have been misused. The IRS would notify parents if their children's identities had been compromised. Taxpayers would also find out whether the suspected thief had been criminally charged.
What this means is that consumers might find out faster -- and take appropriate action sooner -- if they become victims of identity theft. Although you might expect that the IRS could give this kind of notification to taxpayers right now, the federal secrecy rules binding the IRS are strict enough to make a special law necessary.
Don't mess with the IRS
The second item clarifies that anyone who puts up a misleading website or sends fraudulent emails that appear to have connections to the Internal Revenue Service or the Treasury Department can be subject to penalties prohibiting anyone from impersonating or claiming endorsement from the government.
The IRS has been warning consumers not to be duped by misleading websites. Only http://www.irs.gov/ will take you to the official home of the nation's tax collectors. Internet addresses that end in .com, .net, or .org should be avoided at all costs, even if they look deceptively similar to the real thing.
The tax agency has also been trying to warn consumers not to fall for "phishing" schemes, which typically try to lure unsuspecting taxpayers into an identity theft trap by promising them they have a federal tax refund awaiting them. The schemers ask for all kinds of identifying information, then run off with your Social Security or credit card numbers, leaving you with a major headache and without the promised refund.
To be safe, call the IRS if you think you're due some money. Don't enter identifying information on a website that you're not absolutely certain belongs to the real IRS. Few IRS tools ask for much identifying information, anyway. One exception is the handy Where's My Refund? tool. As promised, it will tell you whether your refund's still being processed. If you want to find out, you'll need to put in a few pieces of information -- your Social Security number, your filing status, and the exact refund amount shown on your return.
Also, although you might welcome a friendly electronic note from your local IRS agent, the IRS doesn't use email to contact taxpayers. If you get something that looks like email correspondence from the IRS, don't click on any of the links, open any attachments, or provide any of your financial information. You can be sure it's a scam.
Even if these helpful tools become law, you still remain your own best defense against identity theft. Protect your information, and try to talk to the IRS by phone or in person.
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