05 January 2013

As we begin 2013...

I hope everyone had a happy and safe New Year.  Whether you went to First Night in downtown St. Petersburg and watched the fireworks as midnight rolled around or stayed at home and watched the ball drop in Times Square in New York City at the stroke of midnight, we said goodbye to 2012 and hello to 2013.

Getting to some EdwardRingwald.com website notes, I am going to leave up the Christmas 2012 page through Martin Luther King Day, which is Monday, 21 January 2013.  I feel this will give everyone time to come by and check out the Christmas images I have for you, even though the Christmas holidays are over (at least until the next Christmas holiday season starts the Day After Thanksgiving in November).  As you may have read a couple of blog entries back it took me courage to put up a Christmas page - akin to putting up the Christmas tree - despite a great national tragedy that took place in Newtown, Connecticut a little over a week before Christmas.  So, if you haven't checked out my Christmas 2012 page, feel free to stop by!

Now on to 2013.

You probably know the first thing that's on your mind, and that's filing your income taxes.  Whether you are expecting a refund or having to owe IRS, there are steps you can take to protect the privacy of your tax information; after all, Tampa is one of America's worst places for not only identity theft but for tax refund fraud, according to this ABC Action News (WFTS-TV, the ABC affiliate here in Tampa) article I recently found.

The one important element of your personal information - besides guarding your Florida Driver's License - is your Social Security Number.  After all, this important number ties you to practically everything, including your credit report, your employment history, and much, much more.

When you received your Social Security Number, you received a card from the Social Security Administration that shows your full Social Security Number and a space for your signature.  What you need to do when you receive your Social Security card is to sign the card where indicated on the front, then lock that card away in a secure and safe place!

The only time you need to carry that Social Security card is if in the event you begin employment with an employer.  During the new hire process, you are asked to complete an United States Citizenship and Immigration Services Form I-9, Employment Verification.  When you complete the I-9 form, you are asked for several pieces of identification; among them is the original Social Security card in order to prove your eligibility to work in the United States.

So, guard that Social Security Number fiercely with your life!  Don't give it out to anyone that you do not know!

What other ways can you do to protect your Social Security Number, besides keeping your Social Security card locked up in a safe place?

When you work, every year your employer will give you a tax form called a Form W-2, Employee's Wage and Tax Statement.  Your employer is required to furnish you your W-2 form no later than 31 January; I did some research into this and the employer meets this requirement when the W-2 is either personally given to you or is made available to you by electronic means, such as a secure area on your employer's internal network or a secure area from your employer's payroll provider.

Unfortunately, more and more employers are turning to the use of the United States Postal Service as a means of distributing W-2 forms to their employees, both current and former.  While it may sound convenient to the employer, unfortunately sending W-2's through the USPS - especially to current employees - is a recipe for not only tax refund fraud but identity theft as well!

If you want proof, look no further than several neighborhoods in Riverview, a community in Hillsborough County located east of Tampa and is also the home of the transmitter towers of many of Tampa's television stations, which gives Riverview the "Antenna Farm" name.  According to this St. Petersburg Times article, hundreds of pieces of mail were stolen from mailboxes either right before or even on Christmas day just recently.  This incident is one of way too many incidents where mail gets stolen, which you cannot trust the USPS for sensitive mail containing personal information being sent to your physical street address.

To me, I think employers are doing their employees a disservice when it comes to protection of their personal information especially during tax time.  A workable policy would be to at least restrict the mailing of W-2 tax forms to employees that are no longer with the employer, and distribute the W-2 tax forms personally to current employees, having the employee sign a register proving receipt so that it can be proven to the IRS if proof of W-2 distribution is needed.

Even better, make the W-2 tax forms available on a secure part of the employer's internal network where an employee has to log in and receive his or her W-2 form.  An employer who either distributes W-2's to their employees personally or makes the W-2's available through electronic means can also realize a significant cost savings by not having to spend so much money on postage, with the risk that a mailed W-2 to a current employee can fail to reach the employee or it can get lost or stolen in the mail.  (Then there is another cost to the employer:  Replacing the lost, stolen or misdelivered W-2 with a replacement).

Another way to keep your Social Security Number confidential is when you file your taxes.  According to the IRS, you can file your income taxes for free using IRS Free File; you can even file your taxes electronically for free if you meet certain adjusted gross income requirements.  The frequently asked questions page at the IRS Free File site has more information.

One more way to keep your Social Security Number confidential is that you can do throughout the year:  Consider receiving your USPS mail at a post office box near you, especially if you live alone and you work during the day.  A post office box helps minimize the chance of your mail being stolen.  The costs are reasonable; post office boxes come in several sizes and you can pick the size that fits your needs.

And don't forget to perform a total information awareness on yourself by checking your credit report once a year.  You can do that for free and you can do so online at AnnualCreditReport.com.  Besides, if you have applied for credit or even insurance and adverse action was taken against you due to information on a credit report, the adverse action letter will tell you which credit bureau was involved and you can get a free credit report from that specific credit bureau.

Bottom line:  Keep your Social Security Number to yourself.  Guard that Social Security Number with your life!  And guard that Florida Driver License that contains your residential street address with your life as well!

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