Consumer Alert: Protecting your tax return

Monday marked the start of tax season and this year, experts are advising everyone to file early.

Monday marked the start of tax season and this year, experts are advising everyone to file early.

They said 2018 could be a bad year for tax identity theft.

Remember the Equifax breach that exposed personal information of millions of Americans in 2017?

Well, that has experts very concerned.

"Now, we're probably going to have, with the Equifax breach of 145 million people, more victims," said Steve Weisman, who is the author of "Identity Theft Alert."

Tax identity theft is already a huge concern because it's easy.

Thanks to the breach, thieves have millions more Social Security numbers at their fingertips. All they need to do is make a fake W2 form.

"Online banking, credit card payments -- the information's out there, so if you happen to be unlucky, then you just have to deal with it," Brian LaSalle, a CPA at LaSalle and Associates.

The IRS shelled out more than $239 million in fraudulent refunds in 2016.

With your Social Security number potentially exposed -- how do you secure your 2017 refund?

"The best thing you can do to avoid income tax identity theft is to file early," Weisman said. "The earlier you file, the better the chances are that you can beat the income tax identity thief."

LaSalle said that strategy doesn't necessarily work for everyone.

"But certainly, if you can do it, if you can beat fraudsters to the punch, that's probably the best way to battle them," LaSalle added.

You can also revisit your W4 and adjust your withholding, so you're not expecting a refund.

"There is some risk in that," LaSalle said. "The fact that if you don't project it properly, then maybe you might owe at the end of the year, but that's certainly a defensive strategy."

At the end of the day, there's currently no foolproof way to protect your tax refund. But LaSalle said it's not the end of the world if it happens.

"You will get your refund, it could take some time," he said. "It could take three to nine months or longer, but you will get your refund."

The good news is there's been a significant drop in cases of tax identity theft since 2015, so the IRS is getting better at catching fraud.

They're also working on a new PIN program. Right now, it's only available to taxpayers in Rhode Island and Massachusetts who have already been victims of tax identity theft.

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