It is tax season again. For some, that can produce the usual, perennial anxiety, but this year, there's another reason to be concerned: 2018 is expected to be the year of the most fraudulent tax filings in U.S. history.
According to USA Today, the IRS stopped 787,000 confirmed identity theft returns in 2017, which totaled more than $4 billion. And the IRS says that, as the service and various states enact more stringent measures for screening potentially fraudulent applications, consumer complaints over tax refund fraud have been declining steadily.
But the landscape has changed, and not for the better. Specifically, this past summer's Equifax data breach compromised 143 million Americans' personal information, including Social Security numbers, which led to mass anxiety.
"It was the largest number of calls we've had in a month since we've been measuring our call volume," Eva Velasquez, president and chief executive officer of the Identity Theft Resource Center, said about the inquiries the center received in the fallout of the breach. "People were still very concerned."
That concern is becoming only more exacerbated as Americans gear up to file returns. Armed with someone's Social Security number, scammers can race to file a return before the real taxpayer even has a chance to visit his or her accountant.
So what's the best way to beat back an attempt at fraud? File as early as possible.
"Filing early lowers the chance that someone can get in front of you, which is essentially how fraudsters work," Rick Henderson, principal at Atlanta Financial Associates, told NBC News. "Because what they do is file a fake tax return on the chance that they're doing so before you. The faster you file, the less chance someone can try to get ahead of you."
"We realize that you can't file until you have all of the appropriate documentation, but what we're saying is file as early as you possibly can," Velasquez said. "Sometimes, we put it off, because it's something we don't want to do. Make sure that's not the case. File as soon as you can."
How do filers know if they've been had? If you file online, you should know right away. If you send in your physical forms, keep your eye on the mailbox.
"The IRS will provide a notice if your [Social Security number] is used more than once to file a tax return," Thomas Phelps, CIO of Laserfiche, told Fox Business. "Make sure you check your mail after mailing your tax return and look out for any notices. If you e-file, the return may be rejected if the IRS already has a tax return on file."
If you're uncomfortable waiting to find out your fate, you can find out if you've been a victim of the Equifax breach by visiting equifaxsecurity2017.com. And if you managed to escape unscathed, it's still a good time to remember to be very discerning when handing out your personal information. As I've covered in a previous post, the IRS will never contact you over the phone, and resolution will never be confrontational. Don't be fooled. Scammers are around every corner, and tax season is their feeding time.