Revenue Services Commissioner Kevin Sullivan and Attorney General George Jepsen offered some tips Thursday to help Connecticut residents avoid becoming victims of identity theft.
Sullivan and Jepsen held a press conference at the Legislative Office Building to remind taxpayers to protect themselves against identity theft and tax fraud.
“Identity theft, fraud, and worse than fraud are a growing problem across this nation and no less so in the state of Connecticut,” Sullivan said.
As the world becomes more reliant on electronic communication and commerce, Sullivan said, “crafty crooks” have more opportunities to steal identity information and use it for fraudulent purposes.
Jepsen urged residents to keep their personal information secure and refrain from releasing it to unverified parties.
“One thing is very clear — when it comes keeping your personal information secure, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” he said.
Jepsen said residents should use some common sense precautions as they file tax documents or go about their day-to-day transactions. For instance, they should shred any document that includes sensitive information like their social security numbers or tax identification numbers.
If you need to mail documents with financial information, Jepsen recommended dropping them off at a post office or using a post office dropbox rather than placing them in a mailbox outside a home.
The attorney general recommended some precautions for online transactions. Residents who bank online or engage in other monetary transactions should use secure passwords and personal identification numbers. Jepsen also recommended paying attention to URL address of the websites residents are using. If there is no “s” after the “http” in the address, the site is not secure and shouldn’t be trusted, he said.
Jepsen said people should be wary of any request for personal information either by phone or email.
“Remember that legitimate businesses and government agencies don’t send emails or call you asking you to verify personal information. They already have it on file,” he said.
Sullivan urged residents to file their tax returns early. If an identity thief has acquired someone’s personal information, they can quickly use it to file for that person’s tax return, he said. Sullivan said it’s especially important to file early if there’s been a recent death in the family. The federal government releases taxpayer identity information once someone has died.
“People will look for obituary reports, they will try then to get online as soon as that data is released from privacy protection to try to grab some identification information . . . If there’s a refund coming to that individual, it’s a refund coming to the estate. So they get on, they get in, and they grab it,” he said.
Sullivan said his department plans to ask the state Bond Commission for about $500,000 to strengthen its security hardware, which protects taxpayer identities. He said it will be a relatively small amount of money “but it will be a relatively big investment in even stronger systems to monitor and protect taxpayer identity.”
Though Sullivan said Connecticut’s system gets high marks for security, massive data breaches aren’t beyond the realm of possibility. Earlier this year, hackers stole millions of tax records from the state of South Carolina. While Connecticut’s system is better protected, Sullivan called the breach “every revenue commissioner’s worst nightmare.”
The department will also be implementing new anti-fraud initiatives the will increase screening of tax refunds before they’re sent out. Sullivan said taxpayers likely will have to wait a little longer before receiving their tax returns as a result of the changes. But the increased security reviews are expected to save the state $10 million annually in fraudulent refunds that are not mailed out.
“The trade-off will be that those taxpayers will be far better protected from having their identities compromised and their refunds stolen,” he said.
Jepsen and Sullivan said residents looking for help preparing their taxes should be cautious of less-than-honest accountants. Sullivan said people who get help with their taxes should always have their refunds mailed to them, not the preparer.
In some cases, tax preparers have filed paperwork on behalf of taxpayers that instructs the department to mail the refund to them rather than the taxpayer. Sullivan said many of those preparers “simply disappeared” after the check came in.
“When you went back to the office, it was gone. There was no one there. And when they leave it is very hard to catch them,” he said. “It’s one of the reasons why keeping refunds from going out the door is more important than getting them back. It’s very hard once they go out the door.”
For more guidelines on protecting yourself from identity theft visit the Revenue Services site here.