IRS and Partners Give Out Tips on Identity Theft Protection

Left to Right: HHS Regional Director Anthony Ferreri, IRS Spokeswoman Patricia Russomagno and Better Business Bureau Senior Vice President Walter Brewster (Photo by William Engel)

What’s the most common way for identity thieves to steal their targets’ information? According to IRS Spokeswoman Patricia Russomagno, most of them simply ask for it.

Through the use of email phishing, cyber criminals frequently trick their victims into providing their banking and social security information willingly. More than 90 percent of all data thefts begin with an email phishing scam.

“Every day, taxpayers and tax professionals fall victim to phishing scams that cost them time and money,” said Russomagno. “Phishing emails bait users into opening them. They pose as a trusted company like a bank, a favorite retailer, or even a tax professional. These scams can also give thieves a chance to try stealing your tax refund.”

Fortunately, Russomagno and her peers have a plethora of tips you can use to protect yourself from such a scam.

Yesterday, the IRS and its Security Summit partners held a press conference on identity theft protection. The IRS scheduled the event in concurrence with National Tax Security Awareness Week, which takes place from Dec. 2-6. It was lead by Patricia Russomagno, who was accompanied by representatives from the NYPD, HUD and DHS, among other organizations.

While it never hurts to take precautions against identity theft, it’s particularly important to do so in December. As Russomagno pointed out, identity thieves are particularly active during the holiday season.

“With the holiday shopping season here, and the 2020 tax season just around the corner, we have an urgent message for taxpayers in the New York metropolitan area,” said Russomagno. “As you’re doing your holiday shopping, whether you’re at home on your laptop or using the wi-fi at the local mall, we urge you to take steps to protect your financial and tax data. The information you share on these holiday transactions could be stolen, and used by identity thieves to drain financial accounts, charge credit cards, create new credit accounts or file false tax returns to claim fraudulent refunds.”

Regardless, there are a number of simple steps you can take this season to keep cyber criminals at bay. Lorelei Salas, Commissioner for the NY Department of Consumer Affairs, advised New Yorkers to take caution whenever they receive an unsolicited email from a retailer. Fraudsters will often link consumers to a bootleg version of their favorite retailers’ sites in order to obtain their billing information.

“We tell people to always go back and visit the official website of the business they want to engage with,” said Salas. “We want to make sure that your financial health isn’t compromised because you want to be generous this season.”

Other scammers will – quite shamelessly – pose as a specific individual close to their target. Walter Brewster, Senior Vice President of the Better Business Bureau, said that he’s seen several cases of cyber criminals using hacked accounts to impersonate their target’s employer, employee or loved one.

“We recommend that businesses take a lot of precautions,” said Brewster. “Some of them are technical, like multifaceted authentication on your emails. But especially, you must verify any changes that come from someone personally. Don’t rely on the email alone; always check. If the email is from your boss, wait a while and get ahold of your boss.”

Scammers may also engage in a more insidious form of identity theft, called “spoofing”, that has them impersonate federal officials and local authorities. As NYPD Deputy Inspector Jessica Corey explained, a spoofer may tell you that the security of your bank account has been compromised, and the only way to secure it is to buy a gift card or wire money to some unspecified location.

“Through spoofing technology, the phone calls appear legit,” said Corey. “The real agency phone number or NYPD precinct number is displayed on your caller ID. They even use real NYPD’s officers names when they speak to you. You’re told that in order to secure your money, you have to purchase gift cards, or you have to send cash via FedEx, or wire money to a new protected account. If you receive such a call, just hang up; it’s a scam. The NYPD will never, ever ask you to send money to anyone under any circumstances.”

Near the end of the conference, U.S. Small Business Administration District Director Beth Goldberg reiterated the grave importance of recognizing and preventing identity theft. It’s a crime, she said, that doesn’t only hurt us on an individual level; it also hurts the economy.

“These scammers cause harm to our local, regional and national economies,” said Goldberg. “The U.S. Small Business Administration strongly advises entrepreneurs and consumers to be aware of holiday scams and malicious cyber attacks that take a toll on the bottom line. Scams don’t only affect businesses or personal finances, but they also break a consumer’s trust.”