Ways to protect your identity during holiday shopping, tax filing seasons

IRS, BBB, Jacksonville police team up to help people avoid identity theft, scams

By Vic Micolucci - I-TEAM reporter, anchor

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - With new scams popping up every day, federal, state and local investigators are warning people to be careful. 

It’s National Tax Security Awareness Week, and the IRS is teaming up with the Better Business Bureau and Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office to help people avoid identity theft and scams.

One woman, who's so cautious that she wanted to remain anonymous, said she knows technology is making it easier for thieves to steal people's identity. 

"I realize the dangers of them," she said. "I never give my Social Security number out."

Those are words to live by if you talk with investigators.

"The Social Security number is gold. That's what criminals are after," said Special Agent Ryan Thompson, a criminal investigator with the IRS. "That’s what they’re trying to grab because with that, they can do all kinds of nasty things in your name."

Thompson and other detectives are sounding the alarm about scammers being especially active during the holidays and tax season. 

"This is big business. When I first got in the IRS, the folks that were stealing identities tended to be meth heads on the street. They found a purse or your wallet, right?" he said. "Now it’s big business. It’s organized crime."

Thompson said that's why you should never give your personal information out to strangers, don't respond to people you don't know, be wary of impersonators such as fake members of the IRS or law enforcement and don't fall for a "too good to be true" scheme. 

Tom Stephens, president of the Better Business Bureau of Northeast Florida, said these scammers hit everyone, but young people 18 to 25 years old are especially vulnerable. 

"For those that lost money, the median loss was $1,000," Stephens revealed.

RESOURCES: Information from the IRS on how to avoid tax scams
Tips from the BBB on how to avoid identity theft
BBB Scam Tracker with up-to-date information on local scams

Stephens said it gets worse during tax season, which starts early next year, because phony tax preparers try to lure in unsuspecting victims by promising bigger tax returns.

"We encourage everyone, both individuals and businesses, to take steps to safeguard their tax data and their identity," he said. 

The IRS and BBB advise people to file their taxes early to catch any mistakes and stick with reputable, accredited businesses.

Sgt. Charles Apelgren, a detective with the Sheriff's Office’s Economic Crimes Unit, sees scams every single day. He said people also need to stay safe online. 

"They scrutinize social media. They do research on you," Apelgren warned. "These bad guys will actually take information off your Facebook, scout you, research you and take things like your commonly asked questions that you need to recover your account -- what’s your mother's maiden name? What’s your favorite pet's name? What was your first car?"

For the Sheriff's Office, identity theft is a daily crime, and you may be unknowingly helping the crooks. That why the IRS, BBB and JSO are urging you to protect yourself. 

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