Protect your tax refund from identity thieves: IRS tools, IP PIN

After flagging more than one million fraudulent tax returns last year, the IRS is urging you to take steps to protect yourself from identity theft.

They're highlighting tools you can use to keep your information safe.

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First, the IRS urges you to file your tax return early.  That helps you to get your refund before a thief can file for it in your name. Once a thief steals your refund, it can take years to clear up.

Next, make sure information you send to a tax preparer is password protected.

Third, open your account on the IRS website, preventing a thief from opening it for you.

And fourth, you can now set up an IP PIN, a Identity Protection Personal Identification Number, for your IRS account.  It's like having another password for your account.

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The IRS used to only give IP PINs to victims of identity theft, but now anyone can get one to help prevent fraud proactively.

"Once you get it, that information is specific to you.  That is your personal PIN for your tax return.  You do have to get a new one every year, but that’s a benefit.  It’s another security measure the IRS provides to protect your identity from someone claiming your return," explained Christian Venhuizen with IRS Criminal Investigations.

Signs that someone may be filing a tax return in your name include: getting a tax transcript or Employer Identification Number that you didn't request, W-2's from an unknown employer, or a notice from a tax prep company that you did not hire. Report any unusual activity to the IRS right away.

The IRS is also warning taxpayers about a surge in "new client" schemes and tax preparers that promise to get you a larger refund than other preparers.

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They advise taxpayers to choose preparers that have a PTIN, a Preparer Tax Identification Number, and preparers that are available year-round to address any later problems. They say a preparer should never ask you to sign a blank return.

"The moment they tell you that they can get you a bigger return, that’s the biggest red flag. If they tell you to give them access to your account, or have your return deposited into their account, that’s a red flag too. Why would you not have that money sent directly into your account?" said Venhuizen.

The IRS also points out that they will not call you threatening legal action. That's a scam.

And they warn you not to click on emails, texts, social media posts, or links claiming to be the IRS.

They say common scams are IRS impostors saying you owe additional taxes or that collection actions are being taken.  Forward suspicious emails and texts to