What To Do If Someone Files A False Tax Return in Your Name


Identity theft is one of the fastest-growing fraud issues at the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Online thieves have been capturing Social Security numbers and other tax filing data to file fraudulent returns, principally for the purpose of stealing refunds.

Just this past tax season, TurboTax, the leading tax preparation software company, had to stop transmitting state tax returns and introduce new safeguards after a run of suspicious returns. In March, the U.S. Treasury Department reported slightly over 2.9 million incidents of tax-related identity theft in 2013, up from 1.8 million in 2012. As to dollar loss, in January, the General Accounting Office (GAO) said the IRS had prevented an estimated $24.2 billion in fraudulent identity theft tax refunds in 2013, but actually paid $5.8 billion in refunds later determined to be fraudulent.

In terms of damage, tax identity theft is really no different than any other form of identity theft. Thieves illegally obtain your Social Security number through online or other resources and then go to work on your finances and reputation. The first you’ll see of it will be on your credit report in the form of unfamiliar (and likely unpaid) accounts or unusual credit inquiries from employers or agencies you’ve never contacted. The problem may take months or years to straighten out.

Hearing about a false tax return might take time. Many taxpayers find out they’ve been hacked via a physical letter from the U.S. Postal Service – the IRS never sends (http://www.irs.gov/uac/Report-Phishing) taxpayer-specific correspondence via email –indicating that a duplicate return has been filed in the taxpayer’s name. That means a significant amount of time might have passed between the hack and the taxpayer learning about the problem. Electronic filers might find out sooner because their return might bounce if a fraudulent one was successfully filed earlier.

Recent reports quote the IRS as saying it tries to settle such cases within 4-6 months, but news reports have indicated wait times might be longer. This is why anyone dealing with identity theft needs to move fast and be actively involved in containing the damage. Regulators can’t do it for you and advertised services that say they can handle everything probably won’t. You’ll need to investigate and clean up your own records.

If you’ve been hit, first go to the identity theft action pages on both the Federal Trade Commission (http://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0008-tax-related-identity-theft) and the IRS (http://www.irs.gov/Individuals/Identity-Protection) websites for immediate ways to deal with the problem. Start with the following immediate steps:

  • Order your current credit reports and set a fraud alert on each at the three major consumer credit rating agencies – Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Follow up to make sure those alerts are active.
  • Set up a physical or computer-based file where you can organize, date and file all contacts, communications and paperwork associated with your case and keep track of any fraudulent transactions that occur.
  • Create an identity theft report (http://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0277-create-identity-theft-report) with the FTC and your local police department. This will help you document your contacts with regulators and law enforcement if there is an arrest.
  • Make a call list for all creditors, banks, investment companies, utilities and your employer to let them know about the breach. If you work with qualified financial and tax experts, inform them too. If you’ve spotted fraudulent accounts, contact those entities to put a freeze on them and thereby limit potential losses.

If you’ve never experienced this type of identity theft, don’t take your luck for granted. Even if you file your taxes by regular mail, make sure you set up your own personal IRS e-services (http://www.irs.gov/uac/Step-1-Create-an-IRS-e-services-Account) account, because reports have surfaced that identity thieves are opening false accounts with stolen taxpayer data. Finally, schedule receipt throughout the year of your three credit reports, which you can receive free once a year.

Bottom line: Anywhere your Social Security number goes, identity thieves follow – this tax filing season proved that. Safeguard your data and check your credit reports several times a year for irregularities.


By Jason Alderman


5 Tips for Planning a Property-Sharing Vacation


If you’ve thought about renting property on vacation, keep in mind that it’s become a lot easier – and in some ways, harder.

Much of the vacation rental process has moved online, making the process simpler and more accessible. Also, the so-called “sharing economy” has allowed more people in the lodging business renting rooms and dwellings. In fact, a 2015 study by consulting firm EY notes that in one year alone, the world’s dominant online room-sharing company – less than 10 years old – added more listings to its inventory than the largest global hotel companies added rooms during the same period.

So vacation rentals are easier than ever, right? Possibly, but you still need to protect your money against disappointing choices and possible fraud. Before committing to any kind of property rental or property-sharing vacation, do your homework. Here are five tips to get started:

1. Evaluate your destination fully. The busiest tourist destinations generally have the broadest range of lodging options – from luxury hotels to hostels. Vacation rentals are usually a happy medium, located in desirable neighborhoods with a homey feel and kitchen availability that can make a stay a lot cheaper. However, every destination has certain ways of handling vacation rentals. While the newer generation of property-sharing companies might be active here, evaluate traditional options like vacation property brokers and listing services to compare prices and offerings. Also, search the name and address of the vacation property you’re considering with the words “vacation rental scam” to see if any indication of fraud, crime or other trouble turns up.

2. Check local short-term rental laws. While it’s generally easier to do this domestically than abroad, make sure the kind of vacation rental you’re considering is legal. Check recent news clips or contact a local tourism bureau or chamber of commerce to see whether your target municipality doesn’t have legal or zoning restrictions on your chosen rental.

3. Verify the renter personally and with local experts and agencies. If your renter is reputable, he or she should be more than willing to have a detailed conversation about the property, costs, financial arrangements and onsite rules – including deadbolt locks you can control if you are renting rooms within their residence. Make time to call the local tourism bureau, chamber of commerce, or the local chapter of the Better Business Bureau (http://www.bbb.org)

4. for any details about the renter or the property. Ask the renter for referrals from previous renters, if possible, and consider the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Scam Watch travel page (https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/taxonomy/term/877) for extensive updated advice on renting out-of-town property.

5. Ask for all completed agreements and liability insurance documentation before paying. Before you reserve, ask to see all contract information with pricing and scheduling information filled in as well as proof of insurance on the rental property. You should understand all payment and property rules affecting your stay and what might happen if there is accidental damage to the property while you’re there. Share these documents with your home or rental insurer for input before you sign. If a renter hesitates to share this information, you might want to consider other options. Also, review your personal health, property and liability coverage to make sure you’re protected during the trip.

6. Weigh all spending risks of the rental transaction. If you’re planning to rent vacation property, take the extra step of calling your credit card and travel insurance companies to determine whether they offer any particular protections in case something goes wrong with the rental. It’s a good way to review the full range of protection available to you on any out-of-town trip. And if a vacation landlord asks for advance cash payment – particularly wired money – be very cautious. Many travel scams begin with wired cash.

Bottom line: Planning an upcoming vacation? Before you commit to a vacation rental, vet the owner and the property thoroughly.


By Nathaniel Sillin

Xbot Ransomware Also Steals Online Banking Credentials

internet data virus malware scan find harm mobile phone

Yes. They are still making new types of malware to steal banking login credentials. This time, one being called Xbot is targeting Android users primarily in Australia and Russia. However as we know, it’s likely to make its way all over the globe soon. So, it’s best to know about it now and be prepared.

This one has many talents. It installs malware that can hijack installed apps to trick users into putting in login credentials. It can also encrypt files and hold them for ransom (ransomware), and even scrape the device for personal details such as contacts, text messages, and phone details.

There are several lessons here. First, this one takes advantage of security flaws in Android versions prior to version 5.0. Google has since fixed the issue, but those who have not bothered to update their devices should not delay. It isn’t just this one bit of malware that can take advantage of devices that are not updated, but any that were out before that exploited earlier versions are possibly still out there and can strike at any time. Therefore, if an operating system update is available or patches have been released for any of your devices, install them to avoid becoming a victim of these.

Secondly, do regular backups of all devices. This will make it simple to restore should ransomware strike. Rather than paying money to unscrupulous criminals, you can simply restore it from one of your backups. Paying only encourages more bad behavior and does not guarantee you will get the decryption key.

Xbot will also monitor the user’s apps and if one is launched that the malware is looking for, it will launch a Webview version of the app. Then a form will appear that asks for login and other sensitive details. So pay attention to what your financial apps look like and if you notice any small differences, question it. Perhaps wait till you get to a computer at home or use the phone to verify the app has been updated before putting in sensitive details.

Always install apps from the official app stores. They have more stringent controls on what can be in them so the chances of downloading malicious apps is lower. Sideloading is not recommended because anyone can put an app on a website and while there are many that are just fine, it doesn’t necessarily have to be as secure as if it’s put into the app stores. Make sure you read reviews of the apps and if they give you any reason to doubt the legitimacy of the product, just don’t do it.

In this case, the real apps are not changed in any way by the malware. However, if you use good judgment, you can avoid any issues in the first place.

© Copyright 2016 Stickley on Security

Continuing Education: How to Pay for the Privilege of Learning

continuingeducationThough the pursuit of knowledge is among the most worthy of goals, the cost of learning in a formal institution can be formidable. Don’t, however, let the cost deter you. There are plenty of ways to finance your education.

Begin a savings plan. Whether your first class begins in six months or six years, starting a savings plan now will reduce the total amount you may need to borrow. If you have a year to save and are able to set aside $100 per month, you’d have $1200 to go toward tuition and materials – far better than having to repay that same sum if you borrowed it.

Use your assets. If you have excess cash set aside for emergencies, funding your education is a smart use for the remainder. Consider selling property you don’t use or need, and peruse your portfolio for investments you would be willing to liquidate. (Keep in mind that parting with assets will likely trigger a tax event.)

Another option is to use retirement savings. You can extract funds penalty-free from traditional and Roth IRAs if the money is for higher education expenses. Have a tax-deferred, employer-sponsored retirement plan? You can borrow up to 50 percent of your savings (as much as $50,000), usually at the prime interest rate plus one percent. But consider these options carefully. Not only are there many restrictions, this is your retirement we’re talking about – money you will need when you are older and can’t or don’t want to work.

Homeowners have an additional source of low interest, easily attainable cash for educational expenses: the equity amassed in your home. As with retirement money, using home equity should be done with the utmost prudence. If you can’t repay the loan, your residence is at risk.

Spend free money. Want money you never have to repay? Look into grants and scholarships. Grants are given based on economic need, and scholarships are generally awarded on merit. Your school will provide information on what may be available to you, but also explore FastWeb.com, Collegeboard.com, and Wiredscholar.com for more information.

Even better, your employer may foot the bill for your education. Many companies offer tuition reimbursement plans for those attending undergraduate, graduate, and professional schools. Each plan is different, but most reimburse all or a portion of an employee’s tuition, books, and related fees. Of course, your company will want to reap the benefit of all that schooling, so plans typically require you to stay on the job for a specific amount of time after you’ve completed the coursework.

Use student loans. Student loans are a common way to pay for tuition and school expenses. With them, you have access to large amounts of cash, very low interest rates, and long, flexible repayment periods. They are readily available and you do not need good credit to take advantage of them. Loans come subsidized, where the federal government pays the accumulated interest while you are in school and in a grace and deferment period, and non-subsidized, where interest accumulates as soon as the loan is granted. Whatever type of loan you are eligible for, resist the urge to borrow more than you need. Paying back tens of thousands of dollars isn’t fun.

Reap the tax benefits. The government wants you to expand your intellectual horizons! Really. First, you can deduct student loan interest, and second, you can reduce your income tax liability on a dollar-for-dollar basis with tax credits. The HOPE Scholarship credit is for a student’s first two years of undergraduate education, and the Lifetime Learning Credit is for college Juniors, Seniors, Graduate Students and working Americans who are taking classes to upgrade their skills. To find out how tax deductions and credits can work in your favor, visit the IRS’s website: www.irs.gov.

Inspired to pick up a course catalogue? Good. Because while paying for higher learning may indeed be financially challenging, an investment in education has a guaranteed return – knowledge.

Copyright 2005 Balance

Hacking Is a Profitable Business Model

two members of anonymous activist hacker group with mask studio shot

Recently, charges were filed against three persons for committing various hacking crimes against financial services companies and media outlets. One of the charges included what prosecutors say is the “one of the largest thefts of financial-related data in history.” It was the data breach incident in 2014 against JP Morgan Chase that resulted in theft of data of over 83 million customers. Financial account records are the most profitable information available on the Dark Web; going for $200-$500 per record. This one heist alone could have raked in over $16 Billion.

Other crimes perpetrated by these men included running an illegal bitcoin exchange, manipulating stock prices which proceeds were in the tens of millions of dollars, and using data stolen from various breaches such as from Scottrade (in 2013) and e-Trade earlier this year to try to sell stocks to those companies’ customers.

The fact that data breaches occur is not big news. They happen more often than anyone would like. However, there is considerable news here. In this case, the criminals appear to be using hacking into organizations as a business model. In one instance, prosecutors said that the supposed ringleader, Shalon expressed desire to get credit card data on Scottrade customers so when they approached them for trades, it would seem more legitimate and trustworthy. The group, which is thought to have hundreds of employees and co-conspirators bought stocks very cheaply, manipulated them, and subsequently sold them to customers whose information they had stolen.

While it is good news that an indictment for cybersecurity crimes has been filed, there is not a lot that individuals can do to keep their information safe once it is provided to companies. We have to have a bit of faith that they will do as much as possible to keep it safe. However, they are not perfect at doing so, as we have experienced with the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) breach, the various healthcare company breaches such as Anthem and Excellus Blue Cross Blue Shield, or any of the financial organizations mentioned here. There is discussion ongoing about how companies can collaborate more to try to prevent these and in the future, there is hope that results of those communications will keep organizations one step ahead of the cyber thieves.

However, until that time, we can do something. We can order our free annual credit reports and monitor them for fraudulent charges. We can watch our payment card statements closely and report suspicious charges to the issuing financial institution for resolution, and we can research companies to whom we give money.

Never give any information to someone who cold calls you or sends unsolicited mail or email. Instead, find out the company name and contact information and do separate research on them. Make sure it is a company you feel you can trust with your data, regardless of whether they have your credit card details or trade information from another organization. In fact, if they claim to have such information, you should spend extra time finding out about them.

Other counts filed against the three in this case included wire fraud, money laundering, and operating and securities fraud, identity theft, conspiring to commit money laundering, computer hacking, wire fraud, and illegal internet gambling. These charges cover crimes dating back to 2007.

According to US Attorney Preet Bharara this type of crime may be “the next frontier in securities fraud. Sophisticated hacking to steal material non-public information is something the defendants allegedly discussed for the next stage of their sprawling criminal enterprise.” The next stage could be committed using complete profiles of the data they have acquired to commit more sophisticated attacks. We all need to be prepared.

© Copyright 2016 Stickley on Security

Growing Summer Savings in the Garden


Have you ever thought about growing your own fruits and vegetables at home? For experienced gardeners, the cold months are when their imaginations get fired up; seed catalogs seem to blow in with the arctic blast, accompanied by companion mailings from gardening accessories and equipment retailers. But where can amateurs start?

To maintain a garden as a legitimate financial alternative to store-bought food, it’s important to understand the underlying costs involved. Some gardeners spend substantial bucks on fancy tools, equipment, gardening clothes, deluxe fertilizers or supplies, which sounds counter-intuitive to a money-saving alternative. Investing in home gardening requires frugal spending and a desire to learn – very few people wipe out their entire produce bill without a little preparation, knowledge and most important, trial and error.

There are plenty of studies (http://www.garden.org/) on how much people are investing in home- and community-based gardens, but very few reliable guidelines on how much money you can actually save by gardening. That’s because it’s tough to generalize results based on geography, climate and skill sets.

Nevertheless, if you still want to get your hands dirty, here are some general steps to take before you dig in:

Harvest as much local gardening knowledge as you can. The word “local” is very important. Planning a home-based edible garden in a sunny West Coast backyard is very different than planting a series of clay pots on a Midwestern terrace. Start with a close look at your climate and growing conditions before buying anything.

Plant only what you’ll eat. If you want a salad garden, stick to lettuce that can be planted and harvested repeatedly in one season. Maybe you’ll also want to plant a tomato plant or two. If you generally buy a lot of a particular vegetable, try and grow that first. The more you want to eat the food you’re planting, the more interest you’ll take in making it a success.

Keep your first effort as inexpensive as possible. Generally, the cheapest way to grow plants is from seed you start growing indoors. Some people have special lights and shelving for indoor seed starting, but if you’re planning on only a few plants, it’s best to start modestly. Consult experts about the most effective and frugal way to start your desired plants from seed at home and set a growing schedule that culminates in actual planting outdoor. Sometimes it’s better to stick with a few borrowed or garage sale hand tools and recycled containers that will work just fine for seeding and drainage.

Keep learning as you go. When you start gardening, even if it’s only a pot or two where you’re growing from seed, start an annual garden journal that details what you’ve purchased (with prices), what’s worked well and all questions and answers you’ve gathered along the way. You might even discover new plants you’d like to grow next year. Re-reading your journal before you start your gardening planning in winter is a great way to shape your growing and cooking priorities for the coming year.

Bottom line: Homegrown food usually tastes better for two reasons – it’s fresher than anything you can buy and you have the pride of growing it yourself. However, making an economical home garden takes know-how, knowledge and as minimal initial investment as possible.

By Nathaniel Sillin