You won’t know it’s a problem until you try to file your tax return and it comes back INVALID – but tax identity thieves may have already targeted you.

Every year, they come up with new ways to steal your Social Security number and grab a tax refund in your name. Then, when you try to get your own real refund, you can’t…at least not until you launch an IRS investigation. The agency knows this is an enormous problem, and they will work with you, but your refund will still be delayed.

If you’re not an identity theft victim yet, take every step you possibly can to prevent it. That includes doing things like:

  • Making sure all of your devices – tablet, smart phone, and laptop – are secure.
  • Use different passwords for everything and make sure they’re not easy to guess.
  • Keep your sensitive data – like your tax return – encrypted.
  • Shred any documents containing personal information – from junk mail to old bank statements to credit card bills.
  • Check your credit report and Social Security records at least once a year.
  • Never open attachments or clink on links from email addresses you don’t know.
  • Never use unsecured or public Wi-Fi to check your bank account, tax refund status, or any other financially sensitive activities.
  • Never enter personal info on a website that doesn’t have an https at the start of the address.

Scammers have a lot of tricks, including impersonating IRS agents (who will never make initial contact by phone or email), taxpayer advocates, Social Security administrators, and tax preparers. Unless you are expecting the contact and are 100% sure of who you’re talking to, do not give out or “verify” any personal information.

By taking these precautions, you might be able to avoid being a fraud victim. But just in case it does happen and tax identity thieves attack, you need to know what to do next.

What to do if it’s already been stolen

If your tax return has already been hijacked, and you’re unable to e-file, report the fraud immediately here as your first step toward recovering your refund. You’ll also need to fill out IRS Form 14039 to report the tax identity theft. Then, file your taxes by regular mail as soon as you can (after all, they can’t even start processing your refund if they don’t have your real tax return).

You may get a notice – called a 5017C letter – from the IRS about verifying your identity. If you do, respond right away by calling the phone number they provide. Make sure you have all of your current and prior year’s tax information  (including both tax returns and forms like your W2) on hand along with a copy of the letter when you call. They’ll ask you a bunch of questions in order to verify your identity so they can start processing your real refund right away.