There’s been a surge in aggressive and threatening phone calls by scam artists who impersonate IRS agents to get your information, as well as an uptick in fake e-mails or websites asking you to submit a social security number or other identifying information.

And beyond tax returns, the thieves can keep on taking. Once identity thieves have your personal information, they can open new credit card accounts in your name, commit phone or utilities fraud by starting new accounts in your name, clone your ATM or debit cards, or even take out loans.

Tom: how can we protect ourselves?

 Mellody: in terms of preparer fraud, there are a number of things you can do. The first thing to do, particularly if you are new to having someone prepare your taxes for you, is to read the IRS advice on how to choose a tax professional. Beyond that, make sure you avoid anyone who bases the fee on a percentage of the refund, or anyone who does not request receipts or ask questions to determine your eligibility. Never sign a blank return. And always, always make sure that your preparer also signs and provide their IRS preparer tax identification number (PTIN).

As for fake charities, the first thing to do is to decline to contribute until you have taken the time to check their website. If there is no confirmation or documentation there, or the charity does not have a website, you can go to the IRS site to verify tax-deductible charitable organizations.

Tom: What about scams and identity theft?

 Mellody: It’s really pretty straightforward, but these tips warrant saying every year. First, do not give out personal information – things like your name, your social security number, your bank account information – over the phone or via email. Make sure you perform due diligence on your tax preparer. Know that the IRS will not initiate contact by phone or email. And you have any questions about possible fraud, call the IRS by phone.

More broadly, just remember that keeping cards on file with websites like Amazon puts you at greater risk in the event of a data breach. And be very careful when it comes to unsecured wifi connections that might expose your information.

 Tom: Thanks again for always looking out for us, Mellody!

 Mellody: You are welcome, Tom! Have a great week!

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Mellody is president of Ariel investments, a Chicago-based money management firm that serves individual investors and retirement plans through its no-load mutual funds and separate accounts. Additionally, she is a regular financial contributor and analyst for CBS news.

Money Mondays: Protecting Yourself During Tax Season  was originally published on

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