ID thieves stealing tax refunds still a big problem, IRS says

dirty dozen irs scam 3

You may not be the only person trying to get your tax refund from the IRS this tax season.

Identity thieves are stealing people's Social Security numbers and other key pieces of personal information in order to file a fraudulent tax return and claim a refund, the IRS warned Monday.

The scammers typically file the fraudulent return early in the season, beating you to the punch. And when you file, that may be the first time you learn your identity has been stolen.

If you're owed a refund and have had your identity stolen, you will have to wait until your case is resolved before the IRS can cut you a check. That typically takes about four months, according to the IRS.

Related: Fake IRS phone calls top list of tax scams

The agency, however, has been taking several steps to prevent fraudulent returns from being paid out. It said it has stopped 19 million suspicious returns since 2011, protecting more than $63 billion in fraudulent returns.

Identity thieves can get your personal information in a variety of ways, the IRS said. While you can't protect yourself entirely against identity theft, you can take certain precautions to reduce your odds of being victimized.

"Taxpayers should protect their computers and only give out their Social Security numbers when absolutely necessary," said IRS Commissioner John Koskinen in a statement Monday.

More specifically, the IRS recommends that you do not carry with you either your Social Security card or any documents with your Social Security number or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) on them. And just because a business or doctor's office asks you for those numbers doesn't necessarily mean you have to give them. (Here's guidance from the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse on when you should not share your Social Security number.)

Protecting your computer from being hacked by using firewalls and anti-virus software can help, as can updating security patches and frequently changing your passwords to all of your online accounts.

Related: IRS warns of phishing tax scams, fake emails

Checking your credit report once a year, as well as your annual Social Security earnings statement, will offer some indication whether anything unusual has been reported in your name.

And do not give out personal information over the phone, by email or on a Web site, unless you've initiated the contact and know who you're dealing with.

The IRS has more information here on how to protect yourself against identity theft, how to spot the signs of whether your identity has been stolen and the steps you should take if it has.

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