Identity Theft and Fraudulent Tax Return Filings

I was reviewing some staggering statistics regarding identity theft today.  In particular, how identity theft increases during tax season, and as this time draws closer I am reminded that we all have to be more careful.   Looking around the country, I notice that nearly every state has registered complaints of falsely filed tax returns where somebody’s identity is stolen.  In these cases, the thief files a fraudulent return and has the refund deposited into their own bank account.   While this may be further reason to manage your tax withholdings through the year, it still does not eliminate the need for being much more careful with how we handle our personal financial information.  In 2014, it’s estimated there will have been 11.5 million claims of identity theft.  In 2013 those claims cost the county $24.7 billion and the average loss was nearly $5000 for every one of those claims.  64% of the reported cases come from the misuse of a credit card.  I bring this up because on Friday, January 2nd, I’m going to post an article to Facebook that details 10 places to use your credit card instead of your debit card.  Credit cards have stronger fraud protection than do debit cards; and, the “at risk” limits are higher with your debit card.  Further, your debit card is a direct line to your bank account balance, so please log in to Facebook on February 2nd and check out the article.  Beyond the obvious loss and theft of your money, your credit does impact other issues that you may face.  Certainly it’s going to impact your ability to get a mortgage, car loan, job applications, and interestingly enough life insurance and auto insurance companies have been known to pull credit reports in their underwriting process.

While we’re discussing that, I wanted to review a few things regarding your personal information.  The other area of fraud and abuse, while not as large as credit cards, is misuse of personal information.  This represents about 14% of reported claims.  There are obvious protections to take with regard to your personally identifying information, but there are also a few areas that are a little less obvious.  I would remind you if you’re carrying around a cell phone especially a smart phone without a lock screen and security passcode, figure out how to activate those settings.  Depending on the apps, browsing history and contact information on your phone, you may be open to some significant security risks.   Although it is inconvenient, if you should lose your phone the extra effort will be much better than having all of your information out there for the world to see.

Another area of concern is indiscriminate posting to social media.  Be aware that when you post, as I have done, “self-ies” in front of faraway landmarks, you are broadcasting to those with bad intentions that you are not at home.   Even if you are just out for the night, a statement as innocuous as “its going to be a late one tonight”, may be a cue for thieves to access your home.  Especially if you’re going to be traveling or going to be out of an area for an extended period, be mindful of providing too much information to strangers.  I’ve long been aware of yet another predatory practice regarding funeral notification.  It is easy to overlook amid the stress of losing a loved one, but a house sitter should be part of any funeral arrangements.  The funeral announcement is a public tip off to would be thieves that the house is empty.

And finally from my short list of less obvious security risks is if you have a GPS unit in your car.  A common feature of GPS units is the “home” button.  To use this feature, you literally program your home address into the GPS mapping system.  This is extremely useful if you’re anywhere and want quick directions, you hit the home button and it quickly routes you back to the address you have entered in the memory.  I have heard that when a car is stolen, the GPS unit is something thieves look for.  It directs the thief back to your home, so the thief not only has your car, but also has directions to get right to your front door! Most people also have a garage door opener in their car – instant access for the burglar.  Not to put too fine a point on it, make sure to not use the “home” feature of your GPS.

Another risk to be aware of is your Medicare card – yes, your Medicare card.  The Medicare card has an ID number on it and that ID number happens to be your social security number.  This refers back to the problem of mishandled personal information but this is not something you want to take lightly if you misplace your card.  Remember, if you carry your Medicare card with you and lose your wallet or purse, you have also lost your social security number.  There have been repeated attempts to pass legislation, or at least introduce legislation in 2011, 2013 and this year on July 10.  The bill is called the Medicare Common Access Card Act and most recently was introduced as bill S2568 by Senator Mark Kirk, a Republican from Illinois; however, a judicial review site that I read says that it has a “0%” chance of passing.  In recent times, the bill has failed three times to get out of committee.  The proposed bill would have removed Social Security numbers from Medicare cards and replaced it with an RF chip to uniquely identify your card as your own.  However, the expense of issuing all new cards for 48 million Medicare recipients is just too great.  I haven’t heard anybody deny that the current card represents a huge security risk but the bill just can’t get traction to overcome the cost.  (Personally, I’d opt-in for a onetime fee to be able to carry a new card, but that hasn’t even been discussed)   It’s incumbent upon you to treat that card very carefully.  To get medical service you have to keep it on your person which invites trouble.

I will remind you, and I’m sure you know this, but every person is allowed to get a free credit report every 12 months from the three credit reporting agencies, Equifax, Transunion and Experian.  It’s a good idea to keep an eye on this and also to be aware of anything that seems suspicious in the handling of your credit and your personal information.  As tax times approaches, don’t take this lightly.  If you suspect that you may have been a victim of identity theft, contact authorities immediately because the sooner you can shut down access to bank accounts, credit and any other fraudulent transactions, the better off you’re going to be.

Stay alert, and stay safe. -Matt