Consumers could lose when tax season, identity theft converge

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The Russians are hacking the video game Fortnite accounts and the Chinese hacked the Marriott's customer data, but consumers are more likely to be impacted by someone who wanders by their trash can in the middle of the night.

According to the South Carolina state treasurer's office, the Internal Revenue Service in 2016 estimated that $12.2 billion fraudulent refunds were attempted.

"With an expected $300 billion to be refunded to taxpayers this year, you can expect that identity thieves will be jostling for their piece of the pie," said Treasurer Curtis Loftis.

The IRS states tax identify theft occurs "when someone uses your stolen Social Security number to file a tax return claiming a fraudulent refund."

FBI statistics for South Carolina in 2018 reported there were 203 victims of identity theft, costing the victims $837,020. That's just one cybercrime.

"It can happen in a moment, and unfortunately, it takes years to clear up and can be a very expensive proposition. I've known people whose personal information was compromised, and the scammers used that personal information to open fraudulent credit card accounts," Loftis said. "We must all be diligent in keeping our personal financial information private."

While we can't protect large corporations from data breaches, we can protect our own identities. The first step is secure handling of personal information. Before tossing personal documents into the trash, either shred or completely destroy beyond recognition any paperwork that shows sensitive information, including worksheets.

Be aware that when the IRS wants to talk to you, they will send you a letter. They do not initiate contact through email, social media or phone calls. If you get an email from the IRS and you did not email them first, delete it.

Phone scams use tactics similar to phishing emails. They try to intimidate people into revealing personal information. According to Larry Dignan, an IT industry writer for the e-zine ZDNet, there have been 85 billion - yes, billion - robocall spams in the past year, with the United States receiving 10 percent of them. It is likely everyone reading this has been targeted if not picked up the phone for a robocall.

If you happen to answer the phone and the caller claims to be from the IRS, hang up even if the caller ID shows a federal government number. The IRS will not call you.

If you expect a refund and time passes without that lovely check arriving either in the mail or - more wisely - deposited directly into your bank account, you might be a victim.

The IRS will write to you or your tax preparer if more than one tax return was filed using your Social Security Number, if you owe additional tax or other issues, or if the IRS has records that you received wages or other income from an employer for whom you do not work.

Virginia Moryadas of Lowcountry Taxes is an Enrolled Agent (EA) - a federally licensed tax practitioner. She has worked with clients whose refunds have been stolen.

"Getting the money back takes time," said Moryadas. "It takes about a year. The IRS will investigate and provide a refund after that."

If a refund has been stolen, the victims need to ask the IRS for a second Personal Identification Number (PIN) when filing the paperwork. In one case, Moryadas said, a second PIN was not requested and the theft occurred again the next year.

Cybercrime happens year-round and to people of all ages. Internet identity and data thieves are increasing in number and capability, and using technology requires more security. Cybercrimes ranging from confidence fraud to terrorism cost 2,700 South Carolinians more than $11 million in 2017, according to FBI statistics.

"Have your system up-to-date, use reputable antivirus. If you can afford a firewall, get one," said Alex Gonzalez, a computer specialist with the local company SNS Technologies. "Have a current backup of your data. Do not open any suspicious email attachment."

Small businesses and municipal governments are as much at risk as large corporations and federal agencies.

"Given the ever-present threat of having our network and files attacked or corrupted, and the awareness of recent cyber hacks on local businesses, we very recently addressed this issue," said Kevin Aylmer, publisher of this newspaper. "We have made a sizable investment in the latest technology - both hardware and software - to protect our systems, our data, and our archives. We have the benefit of several vendors right here in our market with the knowledge, staff and technological capacity to protect businesses of any size."

Tommy Sunday, director of technology for the town of Bluffton, said he conducts quarterly cyber security training for the staff.

"Phishing emails can contain links to obtain your personal information. For example, if you do not have a Bank of America account, do not open an email saying you need to change or update your Bank of America account password," Sunday said. "Do not use the same password for everything. This can cause you to be easily compromised. Don't make it simple passwords, either."

Sunday recommended using special characters (such as @, $, ! and &) and numbers along with capital letters. Make the password relative to something you will remember, such as your favorite book title or song, but will be difficult for a hacker.

Reporting identity theft or cybercrime to law enforcement is the same process as reporting every other crime.

"If someone has been a victim of cybercrime they can contact their local jurisdiction and have officers take the report," said Capt. Joe Babkiewicz of the Bluffton Police Department. "Depending on the severity of the crime, it can be investigated by that law enforcement agency or it could be sent to the FBI for further investigation."

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.

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