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Protect your information during the tax-season identity theft boom

(BPT) - Tax season can be stressful, and each year people scramble to send in their tax returns, right down to the deadline. But for those who do a little preparation and avoid procrastinating, it can be significantly less tense. However, whether you’re a last-minute rusher or an ahead-of-the-game planner, you need to take steps to protect your identity during tax time, or you could be facing the greatest stress of all.

With so much financial information crossing the wires and the mail routes, tax season is ripe for exploitation by identity thieves. Unfortunately for many, the thieves haven’t hesitated to take advantage. According to a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report (November 2012), the Internal Revenue Service identified more than 640,000 incidents of identity theft that impacted tax administration in the first nine months of 2012 alone, a large increase over prior years.

Those numbers make it clear that tax-time identity theft is a risk that everyone should take seriously. You should take steps to protect your information – this year and every year around tax time.

* Be cautious with your paperwork. Don’t leave mail with sensitive information sitting in your mailbox, where it’s vulnerable to theft. And whether you’re sending or receiving, avoid leaving items sitting in your car or in your home where they are in plain sight for someone looking in the windows.

* Check your credit report. One of the best ways to stay informed about the state of your identity is by monitoring your credit. Everyone is entitled to a free yearly credit report, but if identity theft happens after you view that report, it could be months before you notice an instance of fraud – and a lot can happen during that time. Using a credit monitoring program gives you better protection, thanks to unlimited access to your credit report from companies like Equifax and automated alerts when key changes appear on your accounts. In the event that the worst happens, some programs offer help through 24/7 access to identity theft resolution specialists.

* Learn to be scam-savvy. Identity thieves are no fools – but they will try to fool you. Stay informed about scams and never give out personal information over the phone or on the Internet unless you initiated the contact and you’re absolutely certain about whom you’re dealing with. Keep in mind that the IRS does not ever request sensitive information via email – almost all official IRS communication is carried out by regular mail.

* Make sure you’re using safe technology. Update your computer’s anti-virus software and security patches and check to ensure that any site you’re using is firewall-protected. Also, be aware that some photocopy machines have hard drives that store digital versions of anything they are used to copy.

Don’t let tax time become more nerve-wracking than it needs to be. Prepare your return in time, and prepare yourself to fight identity theft, in order to ensure that you’ll be on time, secure and hassle-free.More information about credit and identity theft issues is available at the Equifax Finance Blog (www.blog.equifax.com).

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