Tax season is only a few months away, however employers are already starting the process by sending out W-2s to employees. While there are still several months before to actually file those tax returns, the sooner you can process your paperwork, the better.

With the increase in digital tax prep and filing, this time of year is prime time for cyber-criminals looking to steal personal information. According to The National Cyber Security Alliance and Identity Theft Resource Center, there are a few typical schemes that cyber criminals use year over year to extract information from unsuspecting victims.

IRS-Impersonation Phone Scams

Callers claiming to be IRS employees – using fake names and phony IRS ID numbers – may ring you and insist that you owe money and it must be paid as soon as possible through a gift card or wire service. If the call is not picked up, the scammers often leave an emergency callback request message. The real IRS will not call you and demand immediate payment; in general, it will mail you a bill if you owe money.

Increase in Phishing, Email and Malware Schemes

Cybercriminals will try to get you to do something so they can steal your personal information. Watch out for unsolicited emails, text messages, social media posts or fake websites that may prompt you to click on a link or to share valuable personal and financial information. These unfamiliar links or attachments can contain malware – viruses, spyware and other unwanted software that gets installed on your computer or mobile device without your consent – which can infect your computer files if opened.

Fraudulent Tax Returns

The FTC strongly recommends trying to file your tax return as soon as possible. The IRS only accepts one tax return per Social Security number. If the file is yours and it’s in early, it becomes impossible for a fraudster to submit another return with your personal information.

Tax Preparer Fraud

The overwhelming majority of tax preparers provide honest services, but some unsavory individuals may target unsuspecting taxpayers and the result can be refund fraud and/or identity theft. The IRS reminds anyone filing a tax return that their preparer must sign it with their IRS preparer identification number.

The biggest takeaway from all of the above schemes is to avoid immediately responding to any type of “URGENT” communication from the IRS, file your taxes as soon as you can, and always confirm who you are communicating with – even if it means hanging up and calling back to confirm the correspondence.

There are tips and tricks to help you keep your digital information safe. You’ve probably heard us say it before, but we’ll say it again because these small steps can go a long way to preventing you from becoming a victim of cybercrimes:

  • Keep All Machines Clean – Having updated software on all devices that connect to the internet is critical. This includes security software, web browsers and operating systems for PCs and your mobile devices.
  • Lock Down Your Login– Fortify your online accounts by enabling the strongest authentication tools available, such as biometrics, security keys or a unique one-time code through an app on your mobile device.
  • Make Better Passwords – We’ve said this before, but we’ll say it again, longer passwords and those that combine capital and lowercase letters with numbers and symbols provide better protection.
  • Avoid Public WiFi Networks – Public wireless networks are not secure. Cybercriminals can potentially intercept internet connections while you are filing highly personal information on public WiFi.
  • When in Doubt, Throw it Out – Links in email are often the way bad guys get access to your personal information. If it looks weird, even if you know the source, it’s best to delete.
  • Think Before You Act – Be leery of communications that implore you to act immediately – especially if you are told you owe money to the IRS and it must be paid promptly.
  • File your tax forms on secure https sites only.
  • Ask if your tax preparation service has checked for malware issues.

For more details on how to safely prepare your tax returns this season, or to learn what to do if you become a victim of cybercrimes or identity theft, visit StaySafeOnline.org and IDTheftCenter.org.