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Bivens’ column: Protect your identity

Are you ready for tax season? If you haven’t heard about tax identity theft, you may not be! This week, Jan. 26-30, is Tax Identity Theft Awareness Week. Tax identity theft happens when someone files a phony tax return using your personal information – like your Social Security number – to get a tax refund from the IRS.  It also can happen when someone uses your Social Security number to get a job or claims you child as a dependent on a tax return.  Tax identity theft has been the most common form of identity theft reported to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for the past five years.
Rick Zapata, regional extension agent for Consumer Science Personal Financial Management, shares here how tax identity thieves can get your personal information in a number of ways.  For example:
• someone goes through your trash or steals mail from your home or car;
• imposters send phony emails that look like they’re from IRS and ask for personal information;
• employees at hospitals, nursing homes, banks, and other businesses steal your information; or,
• phony or dishonest tax preparers misuses their client’s information or pass it along to identity thieves.
So what can you do to lesson your chance of becoming a victim?
Zapata recommends filing one’s tax returns early in the tax season, if you can, before thieves do.
“Be sure to use a secure internet connection if you file electronically,” he said. “Don’t use unsecure, publicly available Wi-Fi hotspots at places like coffee shops, fast food restaurants or a hotel lobby.”
Zapata also recommends you to:
• Mail your tax return directly from the post office;
• Shred copies of your tax return, draft, or calculation sheets you no longer need
• Know the IRS will not contact you by email, text, or social media.  If the IRS needs information, it will first contact you by mail;
• Never give out your Social Security number (SSN) or Medicare number unless necessary. Ask why it’s needed, how it’s going to be used, and how it will be stored; and,
• Get recommendations and research a tax preparer thoroughly before you hand over personal information.
Be sure to check your credit report at least once a year for a free at annualcreditreport.com to make sure no other accounts have been opened in your name.
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Rick Zapata, the Auburn Cooperative Extension Office’s personal financial management agent, is hosting a lunch and learn “Budget to get Debt Free” workshop at the Ag Science Center auditorium on Jan. 30 from noon until 1 p.m.
Join us as we learn more about managing our personal budgets.  Zapata will talk about budgeting to reduce interest on long-term debts and budgeting to get debt free. Of course, he will answer any other questions you may have as they relate to money matters. Lunch will be provided. If you are interested in coming, please call and register at 251.867.7760 today.