Do-It-Yourself Identity Theft Protection

Credit Score Ingredients

Identity theft is a growing problem in the United States, and dozens of companies offering various forms of identity theft protection have sprung up to combat it. Unfortunately, these services often do little to actually protect people’s identities, according to a study released by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Both the GAO study and consumer protection organizations like The Identity Theft Council point out that consumers have more effective, low-cost methods to protect themselves from identity theft. Here are some of their tips:

 

Bullet Point Monitor your own credit. You can get a free credit report from each of the three credit reporting agencies once a year at www.annualcreditreport.com. You can stagger your request from each agency so that you can check your credit history for any suspicious new account openings every four months.

In addition, one of the most effective things only you can do yourself is to scan your monthly credit card and bank account statements. If you see any irregularities, contact the financial institution at once and let them know if you believe any charges are the result of identity theft.

Bullet Point Place a fraud alert. You can place a free fraud alert on your identity if you believe you’ve become vulnerable for any reason, either because you lost your wallet, had your home or car broken into, or had your information stolen online. All you have to do is call any of the three credit reporting agencies (Equifax 1-888-766-0008; Experian 1-888-397-3742; or TransUnion 1-800-680-7289) and they will notify the other two.

Placing a fraud alert lasts for 90 days. Any credit provider will have to take extra steps to verify the identity of any person who tries to use your credit and open new accounts. It can be renewed for free every 90 days.

Bullet Point Freeze your credit. If you aren’t going to be applying for new credit for a while, one of the most effective things you can do to combat identity theft is to put a temporary freeze on your credit. You’ll have to call each of the three credit reporting agencies and may be required to pay a small fee ($5 to $10 each) to freeze your account, after which no one will be able to access your credit to open new accounts. It won’t affect your credit rating or your ability to use your existing accounts.

Keep in mind that while this shuts down other people from accessing your credit, it also stops you from opening new accounts. It typically takes three days for the agencies to unfreeze your accounts, so keep that in mind if you want to apply for new credit, or need to allow a potential new employer to access your credit report as part of a background check.

Bullet Point Do your taxes early. One of the most common kinds of identity theft is when people use a stolen Social Security number and other personal information to file a fraudulent tax return in the hope of snatching a refund. Your best defense is to simply file your return as soon as possible. Once the IRS receives your return, it shuts the door on potential identity thieves.

IRS Announces Annual Tax Scams

Tax ScamsEach year the IRS announces a list of the “Dirty Dozen Tax Scams” its agents encounter most frequently. Highlighted here are seven of the most common.

Bullet Point Creating fake income. It has come to the attention of the IRS that some taxpayers are creating false income for the sole purpose of obtaining tax credits like the Earned Income Tax Credit. This false income can be in the form of a fake 1099-MISC or fictitious self-employment income. The penalties for this type of fraud can be severe.
Bullet Point Falsely padding deductions. Creating deductions and inflating dollar amounts of legitimate deductions is now on the IRS Dirty Dozen list. While it may seem a little thing to stretch the amounts, the increased reporting received by the IRS makes it easier for them to see these inflated deductions.
 Bullet Point Excessive business credits. This scam focuses on two commonly misused business credits: the fuel credit and the research credit. The fuel credit is usually only available for off-street vehicle use (typically for farming). While the research credit may seem straightforward, there are stringent qualifications and reporting requirements. Prior to using either of these credits, you should ask for a review of your situation.
Bullet Point Fake charities. After major disasters, many charitable givers are scammed into making donations to fake charities. This makes donations to them nondeductible. To protect against this, prior to donating funds make sure the charity is both legitimate and deemed a qualified charity by the IRS. Here is a link to the IRS tool to confirm charitable organizations. IRS Exempt Organizations List Check
Bullet Point Identity Theft. Identity theft tops the Dirty Dozen list every year. Thankfully, the IRS takes precautionary measures to curtail this out-of-control problem. In addition to limiting the number of direct deposits it will make to any single account, the IRS is working with states and tax preparation software vendors to put more controls in place. This includes some states requiring drivers license numbers on their tax forms, delays in early processing of tax refunds, internal tracking within software programs, and continual checking for heavy filing activity.
Bullet Point Phone scams. Phone calls from thieves representing themselves as IRS agents continue to get more sophisticated. The caller ID may show as coming from the IRS and the scam may involve numerous phone calls instead of a single contact. These thieves often have some of your personal information and try to intimidate their victims with threats of jail time, deportation or license revocation. Remember, never give information over the phone to someone claiming to be from the IRS.
Bullet Point Phishing. This recurring scam involves receiving fake emails and websites that look like the real deal. The IRS will not send you billing information or refund information via email. Do not click on any email link received from the IRS unless you requested it. Remember the IRS does not initiate contact through emails.

Reminder: It is Tax Scam Season Too

hidden person

Imagine you receive a call from an IRS agent who says you owe back taxes and threatens to arrest you if you don’t immediately make a payment over the phone.

Thousands of Americans faced this situation in 2016, though the people on the other end of their phone lines weren’t actually from the IRS. They were scam artists calling across the world from Mumbai, India. Their aggressive intimidation of U.S. taxpayers brought in $150,000 a day until police cracked down on their call center.

Amazingly, con artists impersonating IRS agents were involved in a quarter of all the consumer fraud incidents reported to the Better Business Bureau last year, making it by far the most common financial scam. With the new tax-filing season underway, now is the time to be especially vigilant.

Top scams of 2016 graphic

The threatening approach used in Mumbai is just one variety of IRS scam. Another involved sending emails from fake IRS addresses telling taxpayers that due to a mistake they were owed larger refunds. According to the email, all they had to do was provide their bank information and prepay the tax due on the larger refund. Once they made the prepayment, both the scammer and their supposed refund disappeared.

See through any IRS scam

By following a few guidelines you can see through any IRS scam:

Bullet Point Digital communication is a big no. The IRS will never initiate contact with you via email, text message or social media, nor will they request personal or financial information over those channels. If you do get an email communication purporting to be from the IRS don’t click on any links or open any attachments. Instead, forward the email to phishing@irs.gov.
Bullet Point Mail first. The first contact from the real IRS will be through the mail. If you get a letter from the IRS that is unexpected or suspicious, it should have a form or notice number searchable on the IRS website, www.irs.gov. Compare what you find there with what you received. If it doesn’t look right, you can call the IRS help desk at 1-800-829-1040 to question it.
Bullet Point  Never pay by phone. A legitimate IRS agent will never make a call to demand immediate payment of a bill or ask you to provide your debit or credit card information over the phone. If you are suspicious, ask for the employee’s name, badge number and phone number. A real IRS agent won’t hesitate to provide this information. You can then politely end the call and dial the IRS at 1-800-366-4484 to confirm the person’s identity.

 

Know Your Audit Risk

Audit Risk

Nearly every taxpayer can imagine a worst-case scenario where they run afoul of the IRS and are selected for an audit. Here are a few areas that tend to get unwanted audit attention and ideas to help you stay prepared.

Your audit risk is (probably) low. The first thing to remember is that the risk of having your tax return examined by the IRS is probably very low. The IRS audits less than 1 in 100 returns. If you are among the roughly 95 percent of Americans who make less than $200,000 a year, your chance of being audited is closer to 1 in 200. Audit chances rise dramatically the higher your income is above $200,000, according to the IRS annual Data Book.

Areas that get attention

Bullet Point Missing something. Aside from your income level, one of the biggest red flags for the IRS is a missing or incorrect tax form. Assume a copy of every official tax form you get also goes to the IRS.

Action: Create a list of all your expected tax forms. Check them off as you start to receive them over the next month or so. Immediately review the forms for accuracy. These include W-2s, 1099s, 1095s, 1098Ts and more.

Bullet Point Excessive deductions. Your risk of an audit increases when your tax return shows unusually high-value itemized deductions, such as charitable donations or losses from theft.

Action: A legitimate deduction should always be taken. If your itemized deductions are high, make sure your proof of these deductions is well documented.

Bullet Point Large charitable donations. Your chances of an audit increase if you take large deductions for donations to charity, especially “noncash” donations of property with unclear value.Action: Always remember to file a Form 8283 for any donation above $500 in value. If you are donating anything at that value or higher, it may be worth paying for an appraisal of the value of the property so you can defend your deduction.
Bullet Point Disparities with your ex. Your tax return may as well have a red siren attached to it if you and an ex-spouse are not on the same page on claiming dependents, child support or alimony.Action: Ensure you and your ex-spouse are consistent in how tax items are treated on your separate returns. If you have had problems with this in the past, a quick phone call could save headaches for both of you.
Bullet Point Business activity. IRS agents have a keen eye for small business reporting, typically done on a Schedule C. In particular, the agency is quick to review claimed business activities they perceive as being hobbies.Action: Maintain detailed business accounts and record significant time spent on your business activity in order to demonstrate both professionalism and a profit motivation.

Private Agencies to Start Collecting for IRS

Change Your Password

What you need to know

In late 2015 Congress required the IRS to turn over uncollected taxes it is no longer pursuing to outside collection agencies. The agencies are now selected and in early 2017 they will begin their collection efforts. This will impact all of us. Here is what you need to know.

Alert icon Turn up your scam alert. Rest assured the IRS identity scam epidemic is going to hit a new high as these scam artists now will try to impersonate collection agencies. Never pay a collection agency directly for any tax owed. Always send any payments directly to the IRS. If you do not think you owe money to the IRS, ask for help.
Agencies icon Four agencies have been authorized. Only four collection agencies have been authorized to collect unpaid taxes for the IRS. They are:
Conserve Fairport,
New York
Pioneer Horseheads,
New York
Performant Livemore,
California
CBE Group Cedar Falls,
Iowa
Notice icon You will receive written notice…twice. Before an outside agency calls you, the IRS will send two written notices to you and your representative about the transfer of the bill to an outside collection agency. Without these notices, you must assume any contact with a collection agency saying they represent the IRS is a scam.
Payment icon No payment to the agency. These collection agencies may not receive direct payment. You will be asked to use the IRS online payment system or to send your payment into the IRS. Payment is to be made to the U.S. Treasury and not to the collection agency.

Unfortunately, these agencies are going to begin their collection process right in the middle of this year’s tax filing season. So be prepared now and ask for help if you may be impacted by this change within the IRS.

Want to Deduct an Event Ticket?

Event stadium

Things to consider

As an employee, can you ever deduct the cost of a sporting event or other ticket on your expense report? Surprisingly, the answer can be yes, but only if you know and abide by the rules.

The accountable plan

If your employer uses accountable plan rules for reimbursing expenses, the IRS will not only provide the ability for you to be reimbursed by your employer for your qualified expenses, it will also allow your employer to deduct the expense on their corporate tax return. To be a qualified expense, three rules must be met:

Number 1 Expenses must be related to the duties and responsibilities of the employee for their employer.
Number 2 The expenses must be properly substantiated in a timely manner. This is usually within 30 to 60 days.
Number 3 Any excess reimbursements to the employee must be returned to the employer.

Applying the rules

To apply these expense deduction rules to a sporting event:

Checkmark There must be a business purpose for attending the event and
Checkmark an employee must accompany a prospective customer, a current customer or supplier to the event.

If you apply these rules, your employer can usually deduct 50% of the ticket cost and related expenses.

What can go wrong?

As you can imagine, the IRS looks closely at those who deduct entertainment as a qualified business expense. Here are some things to watch for:

Caution No customer or supplier is in attendance. Make sure you attend the event with your customer or the tickets are deemed a gift.
Caution The environment does not provide for a quiet place to conduct business. Do not try to deduct concert tickets or sporting events if you do not first meet in a quiet place prior to or after the event to conduct your business affairs.
Caution Over-charging the ticket price. You may only deduct the price of a ticket that is generally available to the public.
Caution Bringing friends. Generally you can include a spouse in the event, but other family members or unrelated guests can raise red flags.

As you can imagine, this area of expense deductibility is often the focus for the IRS during a review. If in doubt, please ask for help and clarification on the deductibility of this type of entertainment expense.

As always, should you have any questions or concerns regarding your situation please feel free to call.

Taxation Without Representation is Alive and Well

Taxation Without Representation is Alive and WellOur forefathers launched the Revolutionary War with the claim “taxation without representation.” What few of us realize is that taxing the other guy who has no say in the matter is now a prevalent technique. Here are some examples.

 Bullet Item 1 Hotel taxes to fund sports stadiums. New professional sports stadiums across the country are using hotel taxes to fund their construction. This tax is added to every visitors’ bill without input on whether they agree to the tax or not. In perhaps the most brazen example, supporters of a potential new NFL stadium referendum in San Diego are promoting getting fans from competing football teams to pay for their new stadium through hotel taxes.
Bullet Item 2 High property tax on vacation property. Own a cabin or other vacation property? The property tax you pay for this property is set by local officials. Temporary residents do not have a vote in electing these people. So out-of-town cabin owners end up footing the bill for local initiatives without a vote.

Bullet Item 3

Small business taxes. While the legal system treats corporations as legal entities, they have no voting rights. In addition, millions of small businesses are taxed on individual tax returns as flow-through entities, but the owners have no voting authority to represent their business if they do not live in the same community as their business. This means things like property taxes and sales taxes are set without representation.
Bullet Item 4 Out-of-state taxes despite no physical presence. Many states are taxing non-resident individuals and businesses with new legislation. For example, a consultant working for a California company may be subject to California income tax, even if residing and working in another state. Out-of-state businesses are challenged with newly defined “nexus” rules. As non-residents, these new taxpayers have no voice in the matter.

What’s the big deal?

Unfortunately, the pace of targeting taxes towards people and businesses with no voting rights is increasing. This is often due to legislatures taking the path of least resistance. Why not place the tax burden on someone who does not vote? Here are some suggestions on what you can do to manage this problem for you.

Bullet Item 1 Manage your stay. Know which cities have hotel taxes to support construction projects. Vote with your wallet by selecting your location for business and vacation stays. Sometimes the tax only applies to select counties around a stadium. This is the case with the tax to fund the construction of the Minnesota Twins baseball stadium. So select a nearby county that does not collect the tax.
Bullet Item 2 Shop wisely. When looking for a new vacation home or cottage, pay attention to the property tax. There are cases where two similarly valued properties on the same lake have different property taxes because the lake is in two different communities.
Bullet Item 3 Squeak. While you have no vote, you can still try to apply influence. If a community is not business-friendly in their tax proposals, getting the word out is often your only approach. Visit city council meetings and voice your concerns. Support local candidates that understand your plight. Consider challenging property valuations to minimize the impact of tax increases.

Every state, county, and community is different. Know the tax climate before you buy, move, or work in a community that is not your primary residence. It is often your only defense when you are subject to taxation without representation.

 

 

Protecting Your Social Security Number

Social Security card

Very few things in life can create a higher degree of stress and hassle than having your Social Security Number (SSN) stolen. This is because, unlike other forms of ID, the SSN is virtually permanent. While most instances of SSN theft are outside your control, there are some things that you can do to minimize the risk of this ever happening to you.

Bullet Item

Never carry your card. Place your SSN card in a safe place. That place is never your wallet or purse. Only take the card with you when you need it.
Bullet Item Know who needs it. As identity theft becomes more of a problem, there are fewer who really need to know your Social Security Number. Here is that list.

Bullet Item The government. The federal and state governments use this number to keep track of your earnings for retirement benefits and to ensure you pay proper taxes.
Bullet Item Your employer. The SSN is used to keep track of your wages and withholdings. It also is used to prove citizenship and to contribute to your Social Security and Medicare accounts.
Bullet Item Certain financial institutions. Your SSN is used by various financial institutions to prove citizenship, open bank accounts, provide loans, establish other forms of credit, and report on your credit history.
Bullet Item Know who really does not need it. Many other vendors may ask for your Social Security Number, but having it is not an essential requirement. The most common requests come from health care providers and insurance companies. But the request for your number may come from anyone who wishes to collect an unpaid bill. When asked on a form for your number, leave it blank. Challenge the provider if it is requested.
Bullet Item Destroy and distort. Shred any documents that have your SSN listed. When providing copies of your tax return to anyone, distort or cover your SSN. Remember your SSN is printed on the top of each page of Form 1040. If the government requests your SSN on a check payment, only place the last four digits on the check. Prefill the first five digits with X’s.
Bullet Item Keep your scammer alert on high. Never give out your SSN over the phone or via e-mail. Do not even confirm your SSN to someone who happens to read it back to you on the phone. If this happens to you, file a police report and report the theft to the IRS and Federal Trade Commission.
Bullet Item Proactively check for use. Periodically check your credit reports for potential use of your SSN. If suspicious activity is found, have the credit agencies place a fraud alert on your account. Remember, everyone is entitled to a free credit report once a year. You can obtain yours at www.annualcreditreport.com

Replacing a stolen SSN is not only hard to do, it can create problems. You will need to re-establish your credit history, reassign your SSN benefits history, and realign your tax records. Your best defense is to stop the theft before it happens.

 

Ghosting Identity Theft

What everyone should know

To most people “ghosting” is the act of breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend by breaking off all contact. Now there is a new ghosting phenomena; stealing the identity of a recently deceased loved one.

Magnifying glass on obituaries page

Ghosting protocol

Would-be identity thieves scour obituaries to find as much personal information as possible about the recently departed. The more information available about the loved one the better. With this information, thieves can make purchases, open credit cards, create false IDs, and file fraudulent tax returns. This activity can go unchecked until all the proper paper work is filed on the deceased. It can be a nightmare to clear up the mess, all while dealing with the grief associated with losing someone close to you.

What can be done

There are actions available to reduce the risk of this happening.

1 Less is more. When creating an obituary, avoid being too specific on information that could be used by ID thieves. Print a birth year, but not the day and month. Omit the maiden name and the address of the deceased.
1 Home unattended. During the funeral and visitation, consider having a friend or relative stay at the home of the deceased. Thieves are known to target homes for burglary during the service.
1 Notify the bank. Remove the deceased’s name from joint bank and credit card accounts. Immediately close solo credit card accounts. Closely monitor any activity in the accounts.
1 Be proactive. Knowing it can take Social Security months to inform all interested parties of the death, proactively contact anyone who may need to know of the death. Report the death to Social Security. File a final tax return. Cancel the driver’s license to avoid duplicates being ordered.
1 Work with credit agencies. Contact the major credit agencies and follow their instructions to place a death notice in their records. This should help stop a thief from opening new accounts. Obtain a free credit report from one of the credit agencies and look for suspicious activity. Wait a few months and review a free credit report from a second agency. Continue to monitor activity on the deceased’s credit reports.

Fortunately, as long as your name is not on the accounts, family members are rarely liable for any illegal activity. But cleaning up the mess can be a real hassle.

IRS Announces Dirty Dozen Tax Scams

IRS Scams

Each year the IRS announces “Dirty Dozen Tax Scams” they encounter regarding frivolous tax arguments and fraud. While six of the “scams” are related to, “don’t cheat we have our eyes on you,” the other six are scams that all of us should be on guard to detect.

Bullet Icon Identity theft. Identity theft tops the list of the dirty dozen this year. This reflects a truly bad year for the IRS. Three times in the past twelve months the IRS has acknowledged the theft of 100,000′s of taxpayer’s private information. Thankfully, the IRS is taking precautionary measures to curtail this huge problem. In addition to limiting the number of direct deposits it will make to any single account, the IRS is working with states and tax preparation software vendors to put more controls in place. This includes some states requiring drivers license numbers on their tax forms, delays in early processing of tax refunds, internal tracking within software programs, and continual checking for heavy filing activity. There are taxpayer single use tax id’s attached to tax returns that have had identity problems. Here is a link to the IRS identity protection page should you wish to know more. IRS Identity Protection: Prevention, Detection and Victim Assistance

Bullet Icon Phone scams. Phone calls from thieves representing themselves as IRS agents continues to get more sophisticated. These thieves often have some of your personal information. The caller ID may show as coming from the IRS and the scam may involve numerous phone calls instead of a single contact. How would you react if someone threatened you with jail time, deportation or license revocation? Remember, never give information over the phone to someone claiming to be from the IRS when they call.
Bullet Icon Phishing. This recurring scam involves receiving fake emails and creating websites that look like the real deal. The IRS will not send you billing information or refund information via email. Do not click on any link from an email received from the IRS unless you requested it. Remember the IRS does not initiate contact through emails.
Icon Return preparer fraud. In conjunction with Identity Theft, many temporary tax preparation offices set up shop and generate fraudulent tax returns. These folks often file a return using stolen information, create refund fraud and other scams that leave you holding the tax obligation when caught.
Bullet Icon Offshore accounts. The IRS has taken many enforcement actions in this area after breaking the long-standing secrecy wall of Swiss bank accounts. If you have money in foreign accounts, you must understand the reporting requirements or you could be subject to substantial fines.
Bullet Icon Fake charities. After major disasters, many charitable givers are scammed into making donations to fake charities. In addition, new IRS charitable organization reporting requirements are not being followed by many organizations. This makes donations to them non-deductible. To protect against this, prior to donating funds make sure the charity is both legitimate and deemed a qualified charity by the IRS.
Icon Other scams. The other six scams that round out the IRS list include; inflated refund claims, falsely padding deductions, excessive business credit claims, falsifying income to claim credits, abusive tax shelters, and frivolous tax arguments.

If you wish to know more, the IRS has posted information on these scams on their web site, www.irs.gov. Simply click on the News and Events tab.