It’s Tax Season. Welcome to Identity Fraud.

Tax season seems to be one of our favorite topics of conversation lately.  While many are eagerly anticipating their tax returns, there’s an underlying dark cloud looming over tax season that everyone needs to be aware of: identity fraud. 

According to an article published this week, the US is faced with the serious threat of identity fraud during tax season, especially in states like Florida with a large elderly population.  Criminals are using stolen names and social security numbers to file bogus electronic tax forms to claim refunds. 

While identity fraud can be a terrible and costly experience for victims to endure, it’s also detrimental to the country as a whole and could cost the United States at least $21 billion over the next five years.   

In 2012 alone, 1.2 million cases of tax identity theft were reported, which is up from only 48,000 in 2008.  Fortunately, according to the article, the IRS has announced that they will devote 3,000 agents to the identity fraud problem this season -- double the amount of agents assigned to identity fraud in 2011. 

Don’t let identity fraud happen to you this tax season!  Be diligent about checking your credit report and scores from each of the three national credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax and TransUnion) for any errors or red flags that could be cause for concern. For example, your credit report will give you a listing of aliases, addresses, and credit accounts in your name. If any information in your credit report is unfamiliar to you, then it’s possible you’ve been a victim of identity theft.

In addition to checking your credit information, be sure to take advantage of credit monitoring. Credit monitoring services will scan your credit files each day (from each of the bureaus) for certain changes, and can quickly alert you if your information has changed. 

Especially around tax time, ongoing credit monitoring is a great way to safeguard you against potential identity theft and fraud. 

Apple & Facebook Hacked

Just before last weekend, Facebook said in a post on the company’s blog that it had been hacked. Naturally, a company with that large a user base being hacked will lead to significant media coverage.  It also now appears that Apple was the victim of the same hack.

It’s important to note that at this time, Facebook is stating that there’s “no evidence that Facebook user data was compromised.”

Given these incidents, it’s not a bad time to consider changing your password…just in case. For reference, here’s a good reminder on how to create a strong password.  Why change your password? Because if it falls into the wrong hands, an identity thief could potentially wreak havoc on your Facebook account, not to mention other areas of your life (especially if you’re using your Facebook password for other accounts).

Facebook and other social sites are awash in privacy concerns. The more personal information you reveal about yourself, the more of a target you become for identity thieves. Identity theft is real, and is closing in at all-time high levels.

Take the time to learn more about identity theft protection, especially if you’re an avid social user and tend to use the same password for multiple accounts. ID theft protection services, for instance, can automatically monitor the “shadier” parts of the Internet where personal information (such as social security numbers, credit cards, passwords, and birth records) can be bought and sold.

And while you’d (hopefully) never publish your social security number or credit card number on a social network, that information, combined with information that people DO publish on their social networks (such as home address, birthday, etc) can be used by thieves to fully take over an identity.

In light of this recent Facebook incident, here are some quick tips/guidelines for helping you protect your personal information online:

  1. Change your password frequently (at least once every 3 to 6 months).
  2. Use a different password for each of your social (and other) accounts.
  3. Never share your password with anyone, and ensure your password is “strong” (in that uses a good mix of capital letters, lowercase letters, numbers and/or different characters).
  4. Avoid posting your address, birthdate, and other “sensitive” information on Facebook or elsewhere.
  5. Be wary of any email or phone call solicitation asking you to provide your password, social security, or other personal information.
  6. Take the time to learn more about ID theft protection and monitoring

Can Dating Hurt Your Credit Scores?

Valentine’s Day is right around the corner, so there’s a pretty good chance you might be spending time and money on a significant other.  This time of year leads one to think about the cost of dating. 
A good amount of money each year is spent on restaurants, movies, and gifts -- all in the pursuit of finding love.  There is also considerable money spent on pre-date preparation, including hair, beauty, and new outfit expenditures.  In fact, according to this article, 65% of women spend more than $50 just to get ready!
Over the course of time, these expenses can certainly add up.  While all the things you’re spending on might work to impress your date at the time, did you know you could also be doing harm to your credit?
According to this same article, 57% of singles say debt has an impact on how they view potential partners, to the point it could cause them to reevaluate their relationships.  So while you’re trying to impress your date, try not to go into debt doing so! Not too surprisingly, there are even entire dating sites that match potential partners on your credit score alone! Read our recent blog write-up on this – “Your Credit Score & Dating?
If you’re worried about the effects of debt on your credit – be it dating related or other – you should be sure to track and monitor your credit scores and reports from each of the 3 major bureaus – Experian, TransUnion and Equifax. There are a number of services available for this, including PrivacyGuard (publisher of this blog).
Your credit scores, based on your credit information from each of the bureaus, provide a numerical indicator of the health of your credit standing. The higher your credit scores, then generally the better shape you’re in to spend from a financial perspective.
If your dating dollars are over your budget, consider doing some low cost date activities – including hiking, checking out a local museum, or even a relaxing night of home cooking and on-demand movies.  If your significant other truly cares, they won’t mind a low budget date night or two!

Celebrating Safer Internet Day

You may not have known already, but today is the 10th annual Safer Internet Day.

As part of the festivities, it’s important to keep up to date with anti-virus and anti-malware solutions, as well as being aware of what privacy functions are available on different social media sites you interact with. Anti-virus software, among other benefits, can help you guard against identity theft.

Here’s a link to some great tips on how to be safer online. 

However, one tip that’s missing from the story is in regards to passwords.

First and foremost, be certain that the passwords you use are considered “Strong Passwords.” Typically, these are at least 12 characters, include numbers and symbols (assuming the systems you’re logging into permits) and avoids sequences (such as 12345). More guidelines can be found here.

Second, our research has indicated that a large number of people use the same password for every site they transact with. While this should seem obvious, losing your password for one site means you’ve lost it for every site, many people continue to do this. We understand it can be difficult to remember a different password for every site that houses your personal information. But the alternatives can be dire.

Let’s start to make the Internet a safer place today.