The Latest ID Theft Scams You Need to Know About
With so much of our lives online now, ID thieves are discovering new ways to take advantage of us. Learn how to protect yourself and your family.
Protecting your identity can feel like a full-time job. You know you shouldn’t give out personal information over the phone, via email or to strangers with sob stories. You think you’ve got your bases covered … until scammers come up with some devious new way to assume your identity.
One of the newest scams that’s growing exponentially involves tax refunds. Many Americans file electronically, and refunds can be disbursed via mail or direct deposit. Filing via Internet speeds up the refund process—but sometimes it helps crooks get their hands on your cash in record time.
That’s because scammers have been stealing the names and Social Security numbers of hard-working, law-abiding citizens and using that information to file bogus digital tax returns to divert refunds to their own accounts.
When these ID theft victims file their returns, they’re told by the IRS that their refund already has been sent. At that point, damage control ensues, and it can take victims as long as a year to get things straightened out and finally receive their refund.
Tax-Related ID Theft Is on the Rise
According to a January report by National Tax Advocate Nina Olson, tax-related ID theft has increased dramatically in recent years. At the Tax Advocate Service, an independent unit in the IRS, taxpayer reports of ID theft increased by more than 650% from fiscal year 2008 to 2012, bringing the total of cases handled by the TAS in fiscal 2012 to 55,000.
But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. According to the report, the IRS had almost 650,000 ID theft cases in its inventory by the end of fiscal 2012. It now takes the IRS six months or more to resolve stolen-identity cases—a situation Olson describes as “unacceptable.” She urges the agency to adopt a centralized, “one-stop shopping” approach to streamline the handling of ID theft cases.
The IRS does have an ID theft hotline at 1-800-908-4490. Experts say the best way to guard against this type of ID theft, aside from keeping your SSN confidential, is to file your tax return as early as possible.
Don’t Compromise Safety for Convenience
The tax scam is just one of many inventive new types of ID theft that threaten everyone, as these scams spread from mail and landline phones to online fraud and hacking and now to SMS texting. As much as we appreciate all the benefits of online and smartphone services, it pays to be cautious, experts say.
“It’s a constant tradeoff between convenience and security,” says Nikki Junker, social media manager at the Identity Theft Resource Center in San Diego. “We’re constantly going for convenience.”
For instance, paying directly at the gas pump with a bank card is convenient, even though there’s a growing risk of “skimming”—when ID thieves surreptitiously install a device in the credit card swiper that records your data. Even though it can be a hassle, paying the cashier directly is safer.
At the very least, Junker says, swipe your credit card, which affords more protection than a debit card. A compromise would be to go inside when you have the time, and swipe your credit card at the pump only when you’re in a hurry.
In fact, the experts say, common-sense precautions often are the best protection against ID theft. If you’d like extra help, NEA Member Benefits offers NEA ID Theft Protection. Program benefits and options include credit monitoring, fraud alerts, fraud resolution services, free information and discounts on prevention tools.
3 More New ID Theft Scams You Need to Know About
In addition to tax-related scams and gas-pump card readers, here are a few more burgeoning forms of ID theft.
Smishing. This is a twist on the more familiar “phishing,” which is done via email. Smishing involves SMS text messages sent to your cellphone. The scam has become more common as smartphone use increases. The texts can be quite convincing: Some use the name of a friend or relative. The goal is to get you to click on a link that will download malware to your phone.
Smishing may be relatively easy to spot, Junker says, but people also should be aware that downloading an app you know nothing about also runs the risk that malware will come with the download.
“You don’t know who’s creating this software,” she says. “It may have been made specifically for the purpose of getting your personal information.”
Most people have anti-virus software on their personal computers or laptops, but very few have this kind of protection on their smartphones, Junker says. Also useful are the backup and wiping programs available from wireless providers that save your data on their servers and wipe your phone if it’s lost, stolen or compromised.
Doxing. This new term, derived from “document tracing,” is the Internet version of social engineering. ID thieves have become adept at piecing together your information from social networking sites, then using it to elicit more personal data.
“There are a lot of ‘sweetheart’ cons based on social networking profiles,” Junker says. Unscrupulous thieves prey on people looking to make a connection and often obtain financial information this way.
According to consulting firm Javelin Strategy and Research’s latest Identity Fraud Report, consumers should avoid revealing personal details used as identifying tools in financial accounts, such as their alma mater’s name, their mother’s maiden name, their pet’s name and so on.
Public Wi-Fi. Most people are aware of the risk posed by these types of Internet connections, but many may not realize how easy and prevalent it is for ID thieves to access your data, Junker says.
“When you sign on to a Wi-Fi in a café or airport, you’re connected to everyone else on the network, and they have access to your data even if your computer is password-protected,” Junker says. Some innocent-looking person a few tables down could be hacking into other customers’ laptops. In a big public space like an airport, the exposure is that much greater.
And don’t do any online shopping that includes your credit card information while logged on to a public Wi-Fi. To reduce your risk, “we recommend that people download a VPN—a virtual private network,” Junker says. That way, you can keep your private data sealed off from the public network.
The general rule on ID theft: “Be aware,” Junker says. “Protect your personal information.” The ID Theft Resource Center, which was founded in 1999 by an ID theft victim and is funded by sponsors and partners, has a hotline for victims at 1-888-400-5530. More information on latest trends in ID theft is available at idtheftcenter.org.
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