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4 Tips for Protecting Your Identity and Assets this Tax Season

Fraudsters and hackers often abuse trust relationships between online accounts to coerce people into sending them money. Here are four tips to help keep your money and identity safe this tax season.

Articles by Michael Lubas

By Michael Lubas
Security Engineer, Betterment  |  Published: February 26, 2019

Watch for people impersonating reputable organizations.

Understand that scammers use public data from social media accounts to establish trust.

Know which of your online accounts are the most important to you.

Keep your online accounts under your control by enabling two-step verification and using a password manager.

Fraudsters often abuse trust relationships between online accounts to coerce people into sending them money. Here are four tips to help stay safe online this tax season.

1. Watch for people impersonating reputable organizations.

When someone contacts you claiming to be from a technology company whose products you use, or a government agency such as the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), pause for a moment before responding.

A common type of scam works just likes this:  A person claims to represent a well-known and reputable brand looking for people to work from home. Use your search engine of choice to check the contact information of the organization or individual contacting you, and reach out to them via email or phone. This small act of due diligence to confirm that a message is legitimate is always worth it, on the off chance you’ve been targeted by a hacker.

One of the most popular organizations that scammers will claim to represent is the IRS. Phone calls and emails claiming you will suffer grave consequences unless a sum of money is quickly paid are unfortunately common these days. The IRS has established clear guidelines on how the agency contacts taxpayers, so double check any messages that seem illegitimate.

2. Know that scammers use public social media information to help establish trust.

Unsolicited messages attempting to gain your trust should be met with suspicion. A surprising amount of information can be gleaned about you from social media accounts, information extracted from public records, and data breaches. Fraudsters can combine this information to build a story that might help them establish a relationship with you.

If someone calls you asking to confirm your name, date of birth, and last four digits of your social security number, pause for a moment. This information may have been obtained by a bad actor to ask you for money or further access to your personal data.

3. Decide which of your online accounts are most important to you, and clean up old accounts.

Given the size and scale of attacks on online accounts, you should consider just how many accounts you have with different online providers of goods and services. You likely know your email, online banking, and social media accounts by heart, but consider all your other accounts.

Just think about that social shopping website from a few years ago that asked for your credit card. Or that financial services firm that holds your old 401k from your last job. Or an online game purchased through a marketplace. All of these accounts may have been set up years ago with passwords you might have reused and also may have been compromised in data breaches since then. If that wedding planning service from a few years back still has your credit card on file, and the account password was reused, consider spending a few moments to practice good security hygiene and change it to something unique.

4. Keep your online accounts under your control.

Your banking, email, and cloud service accounts likely contain the information you value the most, particularly your email account because it can be used to change the password on your other sensitive accounts. Here are the key guidelines to follow to help keep your online accounts safe:

  1. Use a password manager to create and manage unique passwords for all your online accounts. Password reuse is often the root cause of online account takeover. There are free options like Google’s password manager or Apple’s iCloud Keychain, or for more robust security, you can try a paid solution, like those evaluated in this password management overview.
  2. Enable two-step verification on all accounts. Here at Betterment, we use two-factor authentication to help keep your account safe.
  3. Ensure all important online accounts are registered with an email address you check often, so that you will see any emails about logins from new devices or unusual activity.

These simple steps will significantly increase the safety and security of your online life. For more details on how to stay safe online, visit our security procedures.

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