Treasury: Taxpayers and tax professionals should be alert

Approaching tax season and COVID-19 pandemic create opportunity for scammers

LANSING — The Michigan Department of Treasury has issued warnings to all taxpayers and tax professionals to be alert for scams and identity theft schemes by criminals who may take advantage of the combination of holiday shopping, the approaching tax season and COVID-19 pandemic.

The holiday shopping season – combined with the impending individual income tax filing season in January 2021 and increased trend of remote working – make online security vigilance an absolute necessity. The state Treasury Department has partnered with the Internal Revenue Service and taxing agencies in other states to provide tips on the basic safeguards everyone should follow.

“Scammers are always looking for opportunities to steal the identity of taxpayers,” State Treasurer Rachael Eubanks said. “This year, we are in a unique situation with the COVID-19 pandemic. Please be extra vigilant for scams when holiday shopping or conducting business online. If you have questions about your taxes or suspect you may be a victim of tax-related identity theft, always feel free to contact us for assistance.”

Taxpayers should consider the following during the holidays and as the 2021 tax season approaches:

Don’t forget to use security software for computers and mobile phones – and keep it updated.

Make sure purchased anti-virus software has a feature to stop malware, and there is a firewall that can prevent intrusions.

Phishing scams – like imposter emails, calls and texts – are the No. 1 way thieves steal personal data. Don’t open links or attachments on suspicious emails. This year, fraud scams related to COVID-19 and the Economic Impact Payment are common.

Use strong and unique passwords for online accounts. Use a phrase or series of words that can be easily remembered or use a password manager.

Use multi-factor authentication whenever possible. Many email providers and social media sites offer this feature. It helps prevent thieves from easily hacking accounts.

Shop at sites where the web address begins with “https” – the “s” is for secure communications over the computer network. Also, look for the “padlock” icon in the browser window.

Don’t shop on unsecured public Wi-Fi. Remember, thieves can eavesdrop.

At home, secure home Wi-Fi with a password. With more homes connected to the web, secured systems become more important, from wireless printers, wireless door locks to wireless thermometers. These can be access points for identity thieves. For additional information on how to secure your router, contact your router’s instruction manual or your internet service provider.

Back up files on computers and mobile phones. A cloud service or an external hard drive can be used to copy information from computers or phones – providing an important place to recover financial or tax data.

Working from home? Consider creating a virtual private network (VPN) to securely connect to your workplace.

In addition, these security measures include mobile phones – an area that individuals sometimes can overlook. Thieves have become more adept at compromising mobile phones.

Taxpayers can check out security recommendations for their specific mobile phone by reviewing the Federal Communications Commission’s Smartphone Security Checker. Since phones are used for shopping and even for doing taxes, remember to make sure phones and tablets are just as secure as computers.

To learn more about protecting yourself from tax-related identity theft, go to Michigan.gov/IdentityTheft and follow @MITreasury on Twitter. Contact information for the state Treasury Department is available at Michigan.gov/Treasury. G.G.