(TNS) — As the holidays prompt consumers to pull out their wallets, tax agencies are reminding buyers that the season of giving is also "hunting season" for financial security threats, such as identity theft.
Eleven representatives from agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service, Social Security Administration and the Better Business Bureau, gathered at the Mission Valley Library Tuesday to bring light to these issues. Observers also tuned in through a Facebook livestream of the panel, which was held during what is National Tax Security Awareness Week.
For those who opt to conduct their holiday shopping online, FBI Special Agent Chris Christopherson said creating an email account exclusively for online ordering could help consumers avoid phishing scams. This threat usually takes the form of a call or email from an entity posing as a trusted source that is actually looking to steal personal information from the consumer.
"That way you know that (the online shopping email) account was going to get inundated with advertisements and deals and so on, but your personal account is separate," Christopherson said. "Now, you shouldn't expect to see phishing emails from the personal one."
At the IRS, 90% of the security breaches the agency runs into are from phishing schemes, IRS Stakeholder Liaison Katie Williams said, so avoid opening any links or attachments from unfamiliar email addresses.
"You don't want to open up the email because once you click on the link on an attachment, then you open your system up to malware, spyware, that sort of thing," Williams said. "And once they get into your system, then these cyber experts can really tell you the damage they can do."
These kinds of scams often come in the form of entities posing as government agencies. If consumers receive correspondence they didn't request or if the message is seeking personal information, the sender may be illegitimate, panelists said.
Shoppers should also keep in mind the strength of their passwords, Deputy District Attorney Ryan Karkenny said. He said each password should be unique, featuring symbols and uppercase and lowercase letters. By using the same password for every online account — including accounts on retail websites — consumers run the risk of experiencing numerous security breaches, potentially threatening the safety of their bank accounts and other sensitive information.
"Passwords are like underwear," Karkenny said. "You don't want to let people see them, you want to change them frequently and don't let others use them, right?"
He also recommended using a password manager, such as Keychain for Apple products, to assist in using different codes for every online account.
Christopherson added that passwords of fewer than 12 characters are most vulnerable to hacking.
If a consumer is going to be submitting financial information online or dealing with sensitive tax materials, Karkenny said it is best to do so at home or on a secure Wi-Fi network.
"So don't go to Starbucks, join their Wi-Fi network, and then start doing your online banking or log into your American Express account from that unsecured Wi-Fi network," Karkenny said.
In general, panelists advised consumers to hang up on any unfamiliar callers and avoid opening emails from suspicious sources. If there is uncertainty about the legitimacy of a message, they said to run the information past a representative from the agency in question using official contact information.
One livestream viewer asked about how to identify an illegitimate tax preparer. Michael Sedio, chief operating officer at the Pacific Southwest Better Business Bureau, said it's essential to research tax preparers before giving them personal information.
"One of the best ways to predict future behavior is past behavior," Sedio said. "And so if you can look at the track record of the tax preparer, what their reviews are like, what their complaints are like, how long they've been in business — you can kind of get a sense."
To avoid scammers, Sedio recommends searching for tax preparers through the Better Business Bureau or on review websites such as Yelp.
"Even if you're savvy and even if you're suspicious, these (scammers) are con artists," Sedio said. "These are people who do this for a living. So don't engage, hang up."
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