2015-08-12 / Front Page

QCC Holds ID Theft Forum

By Thomas Cogan
An informational forum last week at Queens Chamber of Commerce headquarters took up the topic of identity theft.  Delivering the address at the Bulova Center in East Elmhurst was Frank Ruggieri, a certified public accountant with an office in Lake Success. 

Identity theft is a common hazard these days—Ruggieri said it is the leading complaint submitted to the Federal Trade Commission—but its prevalence now, compared to its new and frightening status a quarter-century ago, might engender a sense of fatalism in some people who have thus far escaped it.  The speaker mentioned several spectacular instances of industrial cyberattacks that have turned up in the news but tried to concentrate on how individuals can still guard against having their personal date taken and used by criminals.

In recent years, the Internal Revenue Service has said that tax return transfers have been prime targets for hackers, particularly when they have been sent to loan institutions.  Ruggieri said anyone sending such transfers should redact them vigorously, taking away any information not vitally needed by the recipient—beginning with one’s Social Security number (SSN).  Hackers also can get into over-the-counter tax software.  In 2014, the state of Minnesota refused to accept returns from taxpayers who were using a popular tax-aid software because it had been hacked so often, Ruggieri said.  He added that having gained copies of tax returns, hackers can pursue taxpayers’ requests that overpayments be sent directly by federal or state tax departments to their bank accounts.  (Having gained routing numbers in the hacking process, they can attack bank accounts repeatedly.)  The speaker suggested that taxpayers send their returns early to cut down on the risk of having them captured by hackers.  Many employers don’t send W-2 forms till the mandatory deadline at the end of January, however; and financial brokers are not compelled to send their clients’ accounts until mid-February; so a firm resolve to do your taxes early may be hampered by such delays.

Cyber-hackers are probably the most dangerous thieves of one’s identity because they rarely if ever present themselves to potential victims to persuade them to relinquish personal information or funds.  Ruggieri said the hard truth is that the danger of computer-based identity theft can at best be minimized, not eliminated, by anti-virus programs (he recommended Norton).  In contrast, offers that are made through email or other online inducements are there to be examined and should arouse acute skepticism.  Some exiled Nigerian prince willing to share his inaccessible fortune if only you would help him get it may be a big joke after all these years, but the variety of email pleas and propositions keep coming and have to be recognized and probably rejected.  Traditional fraudulence such as bogus charities that spring up in the wake of catastrophes might not qualify as identity theft since they too call for willing submission of personal information and money, but like hackers they wind up with those valuable items anyway.  Ruggieri said that one charity taking in funds for aid to Superstorm Sandy victims in 2012 was confronted for lack of distribution of those funds and pleaded that it needed to retain the money for future catastrophes!  It was a case of using a disaster to establish capital by crowdsourcing the gullible. 

Reaction to hacking has made credit card companies a little tougher in their acceptance policies, Ruggieri said, citing a personal instance.  On a rare visit to Florida recently, he was prevented from using his card to buy gasoline at a self-service station, on the grounds that there had been no traceable use of that card in that area of the country, an indication its number might have had been hacked.  Making everybody a suspect of some sort is one of the sad consequences of identity theft. 

Ruggieri’s advice to victims of identity theft was only slightly encouraging, if his reference to the IRS’s Taxpayer Protection Program is anything to go on.  A taxpayer advocate whom he mentioned, Nina Olsen, points out that the IRS does not provide individual service to the victims who ask for help, but instead puts them through a prolonged process that seems only to aggravate their distress.  He also mentioned that anyone victimized by a person using fraudulent tax records to obtain credit that might be due the victim should notify the IRS using Form 14039, the Identity Theft Affidavit.  After that, if the IRS gets some sort of claim from the person known to be the identity theft, it can freeze the victim’s SSI and issue a temporary one.




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