Everyday Behaviors Put Residents at Greater Risk of Tax ID Theft

While it's tax season for Washington consumers, unfortunately it's also open season for scam artists looking to steal your personal information. The Washington State Attorney General's Office and the AARP Fraud Watch Network have launched an educational effort to help people protect themselves from tax scams.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, Washington state ranks 25th in the nation in identity theft complaints. And according to a recent AARP state study, some everyday behaviors are putting many Washington taxpayers at risk.

"Throwing a pay stub in the trash may seem easier than finding a shredder, but the risk of having your tax refund stolen is just too great," says AARP State Director Doug Shadel. "The AARP Fraud Watch Network is urging all Washingtonians to file early so you can beat con artists to the punch."  

In one identity theft scheme centered around tax time, scammers electronically file a tax return under someone else's name to collect their refund. All they need is a birthdate and Social Security number, and many taxpayers make their personal information easy pickings by:

  • Failing to lock their mailbox: Over one-third (34 percent) of Washington residents receive their mail in an unlocked mailbox or mail slot at home, which leaves them open to a criminal stealing bills, tax forms, and other documents that contain personal information.
  • Leaving valuables exposed: Nearly six in ten (57 percent) Washingtonians left at least one valuable personal item in their car in the last week (e.g., a purse/wallet, paystub, laptop) that could be used to steal their identity.
  • Failing to destroy personal information:  Almost one in five Washington residents say they never shred any of the personal documents that could be used to steal their identity.

Tips on how to protect yourself and your family from tax identity theft include:

  • Do mail tax returns as early in the tax season as possible, before the cons beat you to it.
  • Don't give out personal information unless you know who's asking for it and why they need it.
  • Shred personal and financial documents.
  • Know your tax preparer.

Watch out for the IRS imposter scam

In this intimidating and sophisticated phone scam, callers claim to be IRS employees and say you owe taxes. They might also:

  • Threaten to arrest or deport you if you don't pay.
  • Know all or part of your Social Security number.
  • Rig caller ID to make it look like the call is from the IRS.
  • Tell you to put the money on a prepaid debit card and tell them the card number.

The IRS does NOT call to demand immediate payment for taxes owed without first sending you a notification by mail. They also won't ask for credit or debit cards numbers over the phone, or threaten to bring in local police to arrest you for nonpayment.

"Consumers must take care to watch out for tax scammers who will not hesitate to steal identities and help themselves to tax refunds," says Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson. "Protect your personal information and spread the word about this tax season scam to your friends and family."

Ferguson advises that if consumers have any doubts they should hang up and call the IRS directly at 1-800-829-1040 or go to www.irs.gov.

Consumers should then report the call to the:

Other resources

For these and other fraud prevention tips, visit the AARP Fraud Watch Network or  call the AARP Foundation Fraud Fighter Call Center at 1-800-646-2283.

To learn more about the Washington State Attorney General's Office consumer protection work, visit www.atg.wa.gov.

Contributor Jason Erskine directs communications for AARP Washington, a nonprofit, nonpartisan membership organization. For more information, visit www.aarp.org/wa or watch AARP WA: Who We Are, a short video highlighting AARP Washington services and activities.

Need Tax Help? Call Today!

Seattle-King County residents—especially older adults and low-income households—are encouraged to get help filing taxes. Here are two free services that have helped thousands of residents get needed tax deductions and get their refunds quickly:

AARP Foundation Tax Aide (1-888-227-7669) is the nation's largest free, volunteer-run tax preparation program. Each tax season, Tax Aide helps millions of low- to moderate-income taxpayers—especially those 60 and older—get the credits and deductions they deserve.

United Way of King County's Free Tax Prep service prepared 17,450 tax returns in 2014, and secured $24 million in tax refunds for King County residents, including $8.5 million from the Earned Income Tax Credit.