Speakers Promote Tax Security Awareness, Saying Cybercrime Is Growing Rapidly

Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
Nov 29, 2017
Phone Fraud

Cybercrime and identity theft are among the fastest growing crimes. Given this rapid growth, speakers from the IRS, New York State Department of Taxation and Finance, Better Business Bureau, New York City Department of Consumer Affairs and Manhattan District Attorney's Office held a press conference on Nov. 29, stressing the necessity for people to protect themselves. They need to keep their information secure, learn to detect scams, and monitor for whether they have been the victim of identity theft and other cybercrimes. This message was repeated in various forms from each of the speakers in what was the kickoff to the IRS's National Tax Security Awareness Week. 

Brenda Fischer, chief of the Manhattan DA's Cybercrime and Identity Theft Bureau, said that such crimes account for 25 percent of all felony complaints passing through the DA's office, and that it is the fastest growing victim category in New York. She noted that her office of 75 prosecutors, analysts and other experts has a vast network of partnerships in both the public and private sectors, as well as a forensics lab, a cyberintelligence unit, and other sophisticated tools to identify, apprehend and prosecute cyber criminals. But these resources, she said, are not enough. 

"The truth is that cutting-edge investigations, cutting-edge resources, will only get us so far," she said, noting that, given the widespread nature of this threat, prosecution will have a limited impact on the overall trend. 

This is why, according to Michelle Eldridge, the director of the IRS Office of Communications and another one of the speakers, it is vital that people educate themselves on how best to defend against cyberattacks. The IRS last year developed what she called a security summit with state tax authorities and private tax firms to develop tools to combat tax-based identity theft, and the agency has implemented a number of new measures aimed at deterring fraudulent returns. Eldridge said there has already been a lot of progress, pointing out that key indicators of identity theft on tax returns have dropped two-thirds since 2013. However, she still called upon both individuals and businesses to take steps to protect their data, saying the IRS needs their cooperation to combat cybercrime. 

"When you're out shopping for gifts, criminals are shopping for your information, your credit cards, your financial accounts, your Social Security number and other data that can help them file a fraudulent return," she said. 

Cary Ziter, a public information officer with the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance, said that people should always use secure software and make sure it has necessary features like a firewall, antivirus protection, and automatic updates. Beyond taking these steps, he said that taxpayers should encrypt the sensitive information that they keep on their computers and make sure to use strong passwords. He also warned, in particular, about accessing public unsecured wifi. He said he has seen people doing taxes in a Starbucks using its public wifi, which is a terrible idea, as other people can access someone's system through an unprotected connection. He also urged people to learn to recognize scams and not be intimidated by scam phone calls saying that they're about to be arrested. Finally, he said to safeguard valuable personal data by treating it like cash. For instance, he said that people should not to carry their Social Security cards around as a matter of course. 

"The message here is clear: Be mindful and on guard and take the right steps to protect your personal information," he said. 

Claire Rosenzweig, president and CEO of the New York Metro Better Business Bureau, elaborated on scam phone calls in particular. She noted that the first red flag that something is a scam is that it comes through a phone call in the first place. No matter what the issue is, legitimate authorities send a letter first. Another red flag is if callers ask for payment in gift cards or other difficult-to-trace methods. If someone is unsure about whether a phone call is really coming from, say, the IRS, then that person should just hang up and call the actual office, going to the agency's website to find the number. She echoed Ziter's point that people should not be intimidated by these types of calls. 

"Scammers use threats of lawsuits, or arrest; [they use] repeated harassing calls and pressure to frighten you into paying right away," she said. 

Lorelei Salas, the commissioner of the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs, noted that people can take proactive steps to protect their identities, too. For one, she noted that even the most insignificant piece of junk mail can contain personal information valuable to identity thieves willing to dig through the garbage. This is why her department has an annual shredding event where people can bring all their pay stubs, bank statements, old tax returns and other sensitive documents to a massive shredding machine. She also noted that her department has trained financial counselors, fluent in several languages, to help guide people through financial decisions that they may be unsure of. Beyond this, she also advised that people regularly monitor their credit scores (which she said can be done for free at annualcreditreport.com) to find out whether they have been the victims of identity theft. She also said that businesses should not be listing credit card numbers on receipts and other documentation. 

Eldridge, of the IRS, said that this topic is particularly relevant with the holiday shopping season fast approaching. She stressed that it's important to give out only information that's absolutely necessary. If a store asks for personal information, she advised that people ask what it's needed for and whether they need to give it out. 

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