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Can Student Loans Lower Your Credit Score?

Student loans are much like other loans. Your credit rating gets a boost when you make your payments on time. Likewise, when you fail to make payments on time, your loan could fall into a delinquent status, which also causes your credit rating to suffer.

94817320While the government allows you a certain period of time (for most, it’s six months) to begin paying off student loans once you leave college, not all students are able to begin making payments. However, instead of communicating with their lenders, they often simply ignore the debt, which has a horrible effect on credit scores. To avoid negative credit impacts, lenders offer many options to students who are struggling to make their payments, including deferment or forbearance. These options keep loans in good standing, while allowing you to buy a bit more time to get into a better financial situation.

Student loans are viewed as “good credit” and when they’re in good standing, can help you qualify for other forms of credit later on. However, your credit score can take a dive if you pay off your loans too soon. This is because you benefit from having more than one type of credit. Your student loan is an installment loan, and once it’s paid off, while you’ll save money by not paying all of that extra interest to your lender, you will be potentially removing one type of credit from your credit report.

Many student loan borrowers worry that they’ve ruined their credit because they have defaulted on their loans. The good news is that it’s never too late to make things right. Options are always available to help you repay those loans and repair your FICO score. It might take some time, but if you’re dedicated to resolving the issues, you’ll get there, perhaps even sooner than you think.

70 Foreign Countries Agree To Share Tax Information With IRS

The Internal Revenue Service recently received a significant boost in its quest to collect the dues which it is rightfully owed. In an important bit of IRS Tax News, 77,000 foreign financial institutions in nearly 70 countries agreed to share tax information with the IRS. This historic announcement marks a milestone in the agency’s quest to combat international tax evasion.

As part of the agreement, banks and investment funds agreed to share information with the IRS about American citizens who own accounts at their institutions. The participating institutions include banks from Switzerland, the Bahamas and the Cayman Islands, each of which has a reputation for being tax havens. As of March 2015, these institutions began sharing names, account numbers and balances for U.S. account holders with the IRS.

Surprisingly, 515 Russian institutions are part of the agreement. This inclusion is despite the fact that these institutions were required to apply directly to the IRS to be part of the agreement because of halted communications stemming from the Ukraine conflict. The number of cooperating institutions is expected to rise in the coming weeks.

irs-logoWhat It Means for You

Honest taxpayers are unlikely to be directly impacted by this agreement. After all, tax evasion is illegal. Nonetheless, the agreement could have significant indirect consequences for all U.S. taxpayers. Specifically, this agreement should free up IRS employees investigating tax evasion internationally, providing more resources to seek out domestic instances of tax fraud. The knock-on effect result in more closely examined tax returns and more frequent audits. That said, honest taxpayers have little to fear, especially those with incomes under $200,000.

On the other hand, this news seems to signal the beginning of a commitment by the IRS to work more closely with foreign institutions regarding international tax issues. In an increasingly globalized world, more of today’s workforce completes assignments for international employers and clients. Anyone who has ever worked with or for a foreign company understands the hoops taxpayers must jump through come tax time. But with continued international cooperation, these hoops could diminish. That’s good news.

However the situation plays out, it bears monitoring. For now, all we know is that despite recent foreign political challenges, the U.S. government and its agencies – including the IRS – are willing to work with their international counterparts on lowering financial crimes. That’s even more good news.

Settle Tax Debt

It is indisputable that the Internal Revenue Service is one of the most powerful collection agencies in existence. The IRS has the authority to access every U.S. financial entity in its mission to collect back taxes. The IRS can even penetrate the cloak of corporate anonymity to affix personal liability to its officers, with the ultimate authority to decide just who is responsible.

settle tax debt

The IRS “Hammers”

Although there are some constraints, the IRS has vast powers, defined in its approximately 80,000-page Tax Code. Specifically, the IRS has the authority to:

  • attach a lien on a taxpayer’s property to protect the government’s ability to collect delinquent taxes,
  • apply an outright levy, which freezes cash, securities and investment accounts, and seizes whatever property the taxpayer holds for sale to pay the tax debt, including a significant portion of a taxpayer’s paycheck.

The IRS files a lien notice at the taxpayer’s local courthouse. An IRS lien is like an 800-pound gorilla: it acts as official notification that the IRS has first dibs on the taxpayer’s property. Third parties who are entangled within an IRS lien or levy — bank officers, employers, insurance brokers for permanent life insurance policies sold to the taxpayer — have absolutely no choice but to comply with IRS legal sanctions on the delinquent taxpayer.

Facing Tax Debt Realistically

Obviously, paying income taxes on time — or later with penalties — will forestall IRS liens and levies. The IRS auditor works under the premise that if the taxpayer has assets and owes taxes, and that tax debt takes precedence over any natural desire to preserve wealth.

Time Is Not On Your Side

On the other hand, for taxpayers who are in dire financial straits, there are options in getting out of tax debt. However, those options never include trying to stonewall the IRS, because time is definitely not on the taxpayer’s side.

The IRS Paper Trail

A formal notification process begins once the IRS determines that a taxpayer owes back taxes. It takes about six weeks from the first formal notification until the final notice is issued. At that point, the taxpayer has 30 days to appeal.

Once a lien or levy has been issued, the IRS has provisions to lift or remove them. Each provision has the goal of freeing up the taxpayer’s assets to make it easier to pay off the debt.

Time Payments And Offers In Compromise

An experienced attorney can apply for a time payment plan to settle delinquent tax debts in manageable monthly installment payments. The IRS favors direct bank debits, but taxpayers may also mail in paper checks or money orders.

Another option is an IRS Offer in Compromise, which, allows taxpayers to settle their delinquent tax bills by paying only a portion of what they owe. As you might imagine, there are strict eligibility requirements to qualify. The bottom line is that taxpayers must be able to demonstrate substantial financial hardship for the IRS to accept an Offer in Compromise.

Getting Professional Tax Assistance

It’s easy to become overwhelmed when attempting to navigate complex IRS regulations, voluminous and confusing instruction booklets and forms on your own. Owing money to the IRS can be a confusing and intimidating thing. It is hard to know what you’re supposed to do to settle that tax debt.

Especially if you are faced with the immediate threat of a levy, or wish to negotiate an offer of compromise, it’s wise to seek professional help. That’s where Optima Tax Relief comes in. At Optima Tax Relief, it’s our job to be in your corner, helping you to eliminate IRS tax debt.

Let Optima Tax Relief Fight For You

We actually work with the IRS and the state authorities every day on behalf of our clients, and we use our knowledge to benefit you. From day one, our experienced staff is prepared to offer representation to provide you with full legal protection while we negotiate on your behalf. Further, we are able to help you understand what you should — and shouldn’t — say to the IRS.

Your tax issues are not too big or too small for us. If you need help or have questions about preparing your tax paperwork, we can help you. If you’re facing liens, levies, wage garnishments, criminal action or other penalties, we can help you with that as well. And if you need someone to negotiate on your behalf or to represent you before auditors or revenue officers, we are prepared to do so fearlessly.

Now is the time to rely on the experience and dedication offered by Optima Tax Relief. Contact us today for more information on how you can settle your tax debt.

IRS “Courtesy Disconnects” Skyrocket During 2015 Tax Filing Season

During this year’s tax filing season, the IRS processed 126.1 million individual federal income tax returns and issued 91.8 million refunds, compared with 125.6 million income tax returns processed and 94.8 million refunds issued the previous year. Taxpayers also received larger refunds from the IRS in 2015hold – averaging $2,711 compared with an average refund of $2,686 last year.

However, many taxpayers faced significant challenges in filing their returns due to new filing requirements related to the Affordable Care Act and other changes in the tax code. Unfortunately, millions of taxpayers who attempted to contact the IRS by telephone for assistance with their tax returns encountered long wait times. Nearly 9 million taxpayers who called the IRS seeking assistance encountered a dial tone instead.

New Challenges, Less Funding

In her mid-year report to Congress, National Taxpayer Advocate Nina E. Olson declared that the IRS generally had a successful tax filing season for 2015, at least for taxpayers who were able to file their own returns without assistance from the IRS. This was despite the fact that the IRS was forced to operate with a budget about 17 percent smaller than the allotted funds for fiscal year 2010 – when adjusted for inflation. In addition, the 2015 tax filing season was the first to occur after the full implementation of the ACA. In 2015, the IRS also began implementing major portions of the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA).

“Courtesy Disconnects”

During the busiest periods of the tax filing season, the IRS switchboard can become overloaded. During such periods, taxpayers could be subjected to what is known as a “courtesy disconnect” – essentially having their calls disconnected without being answered. In 2014, the IRS executed about 544,000 “courtesy disconnects.” During the 2015 tax filing season that number shot up to an eye popping 8.8 million, an increase of more than 1500 percent over the previous year.

In her report, Olson wrote “For the segment of taxpayers who required help from the IRS, the (2015) filing season was by far the worst in memory.”

More Calls Dialed, Fewer Answered

olsonAccording to Olson’s most recent report, taxpayer calls referred to telephone agents increased by 41 percent during the most recent tax filing season, with an average call duration 10 percent longer than the year before. The number of calls actually answered by IRS agents plunged by 26 percent – only 37 percent of all telephone calls placed by taxpayers, with an average hold time of 23 minutes. This is in sharp contrast to the 2014 tax filing season, when the IRS answered 71 percent of calls from taxpayers, with an average hold time of 14 minutes.

Only 39 percent of calls placed to the National Taxpayer Advocate toll-free hotline were answered by the IRS, with an average wait time of 19 minutes. About 45 percent of calls placed by practitioners to the Practitioner Priority line were answered by the IRS, with hold times averaging an astonishing 45 minutes. The news was worse concerning calls from taxpayers who called the IRS after being notified that their tax returns had been blocked by the Taxpayer Protection Program because of suspected identity theft. Only 17 percent of those calls were answered by the IRS, with an average hold time of 28 minutes. For three consecutive weeks during the tax filing season, the IRS answered fewer than 10 percent of such calls.

Rethinking the IRS Mission

Much of the blame for this sharp decline in service can be attributed to cuts imposed by Congress on the IRS’ operating budget. But the IRS also bears some responsibility. For instance, IRS Taxpayer Assistance Centers and outlet partners such as local libraries and post offices did not receive paper forms until February 28. Facilities that ran out of forms could not order more – and many outlets never offered paper forms at all. Such limited availability of paper forms hampered taxpayers with limited access to personal computers or the Internet, many of whom traditionally collect significant tax refunds.

national-taxpayer-advocate-american-expats-692x300Olson also cited continued IRS emphasis on enforcement and ensuring compliance instead of providing customer service as a contributing factor to the agency’s woes. Despite occasional splashy headlines generated by prosecution of big-time tax cheats, less than 2 percent of all revenues collected by the IRS are gained through enforcement efforts. The remaining 98 percent of tax revenues are paid voluntarily – and in timely fashion. According to Olson’s report, focusing the limited resources of the IRS on snaring tax cheats makes it more difficult for honest taxpayers to navigate the system. The effort could actually be detrimental to the overall efficiency of the operation of the IRS.

“This focus has all sorts of consequences for the vast majority of taxpayers who are willing to comply, not the least of which is that they bear an increased burden in navigating processes designed for evaders. That is unwise, counterproductive, and expensive,” Olson wrote.

The IRS Response

Volume 2 of the 2015 Taxpayer Advocate’s report includes IRS responses to the Taxpayer Advocate’s 2014 report, along with additional comments. The 2014 report made 93 recommendations. According to the IRS, 45 of those recommendations have been or will be implemented, although additional resources would be required to fulfill some of the recommendations. With luck, taxpayers seeking assistance during the 2016 tax return season will receive answers – rather than a dial tone.

When Your Tax Exemption Grows Up And Gets A Job

BabyIt is inevitable that at some point children will be able to claim their own tax deductions and get big refunds. At this point, it’s time to bring out the dependency worksheet.

Parents should know that if a child makes enough money to challenge your income tax exemptions, it could add significantly to your tax obligations. In addition, some parents mistakenly believe that as long as their children are under age 24 and in college full time that they can still claim them on their tax returns. However, if a child is contributing to more than half of his/her own support, then parents can no longer claim that child as a dependent.

Let’s take a hypothetical example of 16 year old Betty. She works after school and on weekends at a sporting goods store, where she earns a minimum wage salary and a commission on sales. She is gifted in sales, so even though she is still in high school, she made $11,500 the previous year. Betty and her three sisters live with her parents and her grandmother, and qualifies as a dependent for Betty’s parents on their joint income tax return.

boyAccording to the worksheet for the dependency support test, (available in IRS Publication 501, page 16) household expenses, including groceries consumed in the home, utility bills, repairs, and the fair rental value of the house must be divided by the number of residents in the household. In this case, with a married couple, a grandparent, and four children, the household is comprised of seven people.

If the fair rental value of the home is $2500, then $357.00 person is the figure that will be applied to Betty’s support. The utility bills add up to an average of $500 per month. Divided by 7, Betty’s share is $71 every month. If groceries average $200 per week, then Betty’s share is $29 per week. Annual plumbing repairs of $840 translate to $120 per year for each person in the household. A recap of Betty’s annual household expenses is below:

  •                $4284 Fair rental value
  •                $852 Utilities
  •                $1508 Groceries
  •                $120 Plumbing repairs

This translates to $6764 for Betty’s total share of household expenses per year. Christmas presents, her share of an annual family vacation, clothing, recreation, electronics equipment, medical expenses not paid by insurance, and her insurance premiums add $12,000 to Betty’s share of total household expenses, bringing Betty’s total share of household expenses to $18,764.

teenLet’s recall Betty’s salary of $11,500. Unless her parents can prove that her earnings went to savings or investments, it will count as money spent toward her own support. As it turns out, Betty bought a car, and pays for her own insurance, which runs $300 or $400 per month. She spends an additional $10 or $11 a day on lunch or movies. Of course she wears the latest fashions, regularly downloads (legally) music from Adele, Katy Perry and Beyoncé, and has purchased the complete set of episodes for the first season of Game of Thrones. She also has an iPhone 6 Plus and a tablet. Life is large, and so is her tax refund. Meanwhile, her parents’ allowable credits and deductions have shrunk. Her parents have lost the child tax credit.

A second example considers Betty going away to college. Betty’s parents’ income has risen, but private tuition for Betty has also risen. Meanwhile, Betty pitches in by taking a part-time job while she’s enrolled in classes. Depending on how much she earns, her parents may lose the dependency exemption. If Betty qualifies as an independent student for financial aid purposes, her parents will lose the educational credit, too.

manIt’s important to remember that if you choose not to claim a child that qualifies as your dependent, the child still cannot claim the exemption for herself. To prevent tax surprises later, there should ideally be an understanding within the family before children start earning substantial salaries about establishing a savings account and other plans to minimize tax burdens for both parents and children. A good place to start is by enlisting the help of a tax professional. Contact us today to schedule a strategy session.

General Tax Info For The Gambler

In the last thirty years, gambling has changed its image from a quasi-legal activity to a major player in the economy. The IRS has responded accordingly, now requiring gambling winnings to be reported as a source of income, with losses deductible only to the extent of winnings. Even a professional gambler cannot generate a loss with gambling losses. (IRC section 165(d).) (If you win a prize in a drawing, that does not count as  “gambling.” It is reported on 1099-MISC, and other rules apply.)

gamble

If you are fortunate enough to win $1200 in a jackpot at a slot machine, $1500 from keno, $5000 from a poker tournament, or $600 or more from “other” gambling winnings, then the casino will record your Social Security Number and the amount of the win, and write it off as an expense. Casinos offer a win-loss statement for their slot players that itemizes coin-in and coin-out, but vary in their player-tracking policies for other types of play. The casino will give you a copy of the gambling win, on Form W-2G and send a copy to the IRS. The IRS will use this gross figure as increased ordinary income unless you can indicate losses against this win. Senior citizens beware: the amount indicated on line 21 of Form W-2G will potentially make more of your Social Security benefits taxable!

The traditional place to declare gambling losses is on Schedule A under miscellaneous deductions, but there are problems with doing it this way. First, you must “qualify” to itemize deductions on Schedule A.  For Schedule A to do you any good, your deductions must be greater than what you would receive as the standard deduction.

Let us say that you are single, so your standard deduction for 2014 is $6,200. If your allowable itemized deductions total less than this amount, then filing a Schedule A won’t benefit you. However, if you have sufficient mortgage interest, real estate taxes or charitable contributions to justify itemizing your deductions, then declaring a $1200 loss on Schedule A will help to offset the $1200 win.

If you don’t qualify for a Schedule A, or if you want to report less than what appears on line 21 of Form W-2G , then you have significantly more bookkeeping to do. All winnings, not just W-2G winnings, are reportable. Therefore, you must maintain a day-to-day diary that itemizes ALL of your winnings and losses per session, not just amounts of $1200 and over. The diary, similar to a tip diary, must be credible. It’s a good idea to back it up with bank records, ATM slips, and casino win-loss statements.

gambleIf you travel to gambling resorts once or twice a year, be prepared to keep a log of your winnings and losses per trip. As you arrive at your resort or hotel, make a dated note of your “buy in”, the amount of cash that you brought along to play with. When you check out of the hotel or resort, make a note of your “win” (or loss). This is considered the end of your gambling session.

If you live in a gambling city such as Reno or Las Vegas, then there is technically no way to delineate a gambling session, since slot machines are available in supermarkets and convenience stores 24 hours a day, as well as in bars and restaurants. If you are reporting less than the amount of winnings reported on Forms W-2G, be prepared for an IRS letter or an audit, and have all of the records required for a day-to-day record of wins and losses.  You should also be aware of various state laws that may vary from federal requirements. In such cases, it’s a smart strategy to have a tax professional assist you with the reportable figure. This option will require conforming to the situation in the court case Shollenberger v. Commissioner T.C. memo 2009-306, as referenced in The Tax Book, by Tax Materials , Inc.

Don’t expect casinos to proactively withhold any portion of your winnings for tax purposes unless state law requires it. Most state laws do not. Exceptions include foreign winners or other special circumstances.

There are two obvious reasons casinos won’t voluntarily place tax withholdings on your gambling winnings:

  1.      Withholding creates added administration paperwork
  2.      Withholding disrupts the flow of business (if the money is withheld, then you won’t lose it back)

You can request that money be withheld from your winnings (perhaps based on your marginal tax rate or higher) at the time of the payoff. But you should not request withholding if your winnings come from the casino where you work. (Some states and casinos allow casino workers to gamble where they work; others do not.) However you go about doing so, having tax withholdings from gambling winnings can potentially save you hundreds or even thousands of dollars at tax time.

Things You Can Do After Tax Season To Make Next Year Easier

The best tax advice is to get an earlier start on filing income tax returns. Putting off completing your tax returns until April only increases the stress and anxiety of confronting all of the rules and regulations of the IRS. The strain of filing this year’s returns should serve as an incentive to make next year go a little smoother. To make that happen, incorporate a few organizational techniques, and aim for a goal to file your return by February next year.

mileageEspecially if you use your car frequently for business, you’ll find that the miles add up quickly.  Many taxpayers can legitimately claim the mileage deduction for their personal vehicles. However, the IRS wants a mileage diary at audit time. Many tax practitioners, afraid of accuracy penalties, are reluctant to include estimated mileage numbers on their customers’ tax returns.

The solution? Buy a small expense diary that will fit in an easy-to-reach cubby-hole near your dashboard. Attach a pen to the notebook. As soon as you buy the expense booklet, write down the mileage from the odometer, next to the date. Put the booklet and envelope in the glove box of your car.  You should also purchase a manila folder to keep by your computer.  Whether you prepare your own taxes or leave the task to a tax professional, the presence of the manila folder can remind you to either print out copies of mortgage statements or other transactions. If you receive statements or bills by mail, put them in the folder.  If there is a particular place where you empty your pockets or purse, make sure a second envelope or folder for receipts is nearby.

Your manila folder and glove compartment envelope can be used for any receipt, including prescription and over-the counter drugs or doctor receipts. Did you make a tuition payment online for your child’s college tuition? Print out a receipt right away, and stash it in the folder.

ReceiptsIf you occasionally make a purchase for your rental property, keep an envelope in the glove box to keep receipts. You can use the same envelope for gas receipts. Even though gas purchases are not deductible, gas receipts can provide substantiating evidence for mileage deduction claims. Did you take clothes or other donations to your church, or the Salvation Army?  Put the receipt you should have received in the envelope along with your gas receipts and receipts for rental purchases.  Maintaining receipts is essential in case the IRS questions your deductions.

Whenever you use the car for a deductible trip, copy down the odometer reader at the beginning and again when you return home. To cement the habit of keeping track of your mileage, copy the odometer reading every time you get in the car. Your log should include the date, the beginning odometer reading, the purpose of the trip, including names of people you’re meeting with if your trip is business related, and the ending mileage.

Once your system is in place, maintenance requires only a few seconds a day.  Writing down your mileage will become second nature. You’ll be surprised by how quickly your receipts add up as the year progresses.  And you’ll be able to look forward to a more lucrative and less stressful tax season next year!

Tax Fraud: How Do You Protect Yourself From Something You Don’t Know Exists?

You’ve always filed your income tax returns electronically in the past. Your returns were less vulnerable to calculation errors and you received your tax refund much quicker than you did filing paper returns. But this year, when you attempted to e-file your federal income tax return, the IRS rejected your submission, issuing a statement that a previously filed return using your Social Security number was already on file. How could such a thing happen?

Welcome to the world of identity theft, tax fraud style. Scammers filing falsified returns reap millions for their fraudulent efforts, spending the money from their ill-gotten gains long before the IRS – or their victims – become privy to the fact that a crime has even been committed. Many victims only learn that they’ve been targeted after receiving an audit notice from the IRS. In the meantime, fines, fees, penalties and interest from tax return fraud have accumulated, – and it’s largely up to victims to straighten out the mess.

tax fraud“Drops” and Bling

Ironically, the same e-filing system that cuts weeks from the time needed to process federal income tax returns and refunds also facilitates tax return fraud. Known as “drops” in many urban areas, this form of tax fraud identity theft involves using victims’ Social Security numbers, to file fraudulent electronic income tax returns claiming substantial tax refunds. This eliminates the need to attempt to forge victims’ physical signatures on paper tax returns.

Another ironic consequence of the dramatic rise in “drops” is a corresponding decline in street crime, particularly the drug trade. Many small-time drug dealers and even large volume drug traders find that executing “drops” is less legally hazardous, not to mention more lucrative. Another ironic consequence is a reduction in demand for assistance from food banks or even government food stamps: tax fraud artists don’t need the help. In fact, the expensive cars with pricey rims, the fancy clothes and the other “bling” flaunted by many tax fraud artists, fuels resentment amongst honest residents in low-income neighborhoods who struggle to make ends meet on a daily basis.

How Victims are Targeted

Have you ever provided your Social Security number to anyone? Then you are potentially a target for tax fraud identity theft. Many legitimate transactions: opening a bank account, applying for a mortgage or filling out a job application require individuals to supply Social Security Numbers. Unscrupulous employees harvest Social Security numbers from such transactions, which they use themselves or sell to the highest bidder. Tax fraud artists also comb death notices, create Trojan viruses or phishing email attempts or simply rummage through trash for the information they seek.

Funds from these fraudulent returns are commonly issued on proprietary debit cards issued by companies providing e-filing services, making it easy for fraud artists to access their ill-gotten gains. Paperwork backlogs and personnel shortages within the IRS exacerbate the issue. Especially during the busy tax filing season, the emphasis of the IRS is on processing returns and refunds as quickly as possible. By the time the IRS initiates inquires on questionable returns, money from fraudulently obtained refunds has often long since been spent.

Protecting Yourself from Tax Return Fraud

The best way to protect yourself from tax return fraud is by limiting access to your Social Security number. A bit of vigilance will protect you from many fraudulent attempts to obtain your Social Security number. Don’t carry your Social Security card unless you need to provide a copy for a job application or a similar purpose. Protect sensitive information on your computer by maintaining up-to-date antivirus and antispyware software and firewalls.

Think twice before responding to unsolicited “pre-approved credit” offers received online or in the mail. Never supply sensitive personal or financial information unless you have initiated the transaction or conversation – or unless you are 110 percent sure that the person on the phone or the website you’re dealing with is the real deal. If you receive questionable communication requesting (or demanding) sensitive financial or personal information from a company you’ve done business with, contact the company directly to check verify that it is indeed them requesting the information.

If you receive unsolicited email, social media or text messages claiming to be from the IRS, there is a 100 percent probability that they’re fake. The IRS only initiates communications with taxpayers by regular mail or by telephone – period. Do not respond directly to such communications in any way. Instead, report suspicious IRS-related communications to phishing@irs.gov or call 1-800-366-4484.

If You’ve Been Victimized by Tax Return Fraudtax_fraud

The first indication that you’ve been victimized by tax return fraud often comes in the form of an inquiry from the IRS about discrepancies in your return. You may be questioned about returns issued in your name which you never received or wages earned for companies you’ve never even heard of. You may also be assessed additional taxes or tax return offsets for years that you didn’t file a tax return at all. Another telltale sign is a notice from the IRS that multiple returns have been filed during a single year using your Social Security number.

Once you become aware that you’ve been targeted by tax return fraud, you must act quickly to limit the damage. File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission and a police report with your local law enforcement agency. Contact one or more of the three major credit reporting bureaus (TransUnion, Equifax or Experian) to have a fraud alert placed on your credit report. Close any credit card or other accounts that have been compromised or opened without your knowledge. Also, check your earnings report annually with the Social Security Administration to endure that there is no fraudulent activity.

If your federal tax refund has been stolen or you have other unresolved tax-fraud related issues, contact the IRS Identity Protection Specialized Unit at (800)908-4490. You can protect yourself from further tax return fraud attempts by filing “Form 14039 – Identity Theft Affidavit” with the IRS. It’s likely that you’ll be required to file a paper return for the present tax year and it may take months to resolve your case, as well as restore any refunds to which you’re rightfully entitled.

However, the IRS will issue you a unique IP PIN that will replace your Social Security number and which will allow you to e-file future federal income tax returns safely. Do not use this IP PIN for any other reason – including state income tax returns.

IRS Hacked, 104,000 Taxpayers Impacted and Nearly $50 million Stolen: What Should You Do to Protect Yourself?

The IRS announced on Tuesday (5/26/2015) that identity thieves had attempted to access the accounts of 200,000 taxpayers through the IRS’s “Get Transcript” online application. The scary part is that the IRS has admitted that more than 104,000 of those attempts were successful. The hackers’ operation started in February and ran through mid-May. All in all, the IRS was tricked into sending nearly $50 million in refunds for fraudulent returns.

The IRS has started an investigation in the breach and has temporarily closed down the “Get Transcript” application, a service that allows taxpayers gain access to their information. Taxpayers who need access to old tax returns to apply for mortgage or college loans can now request them by snail mail.

irs_data_breachThe IRS is notifying the 200,000 taxpayers whose accounts were tampered with that their Social Security numbers and other personal financial information is in the hands of hackers. It is also offering complimentary credit monitoring to the 104,000 whose “Get Transcript” accounts were accessed to ensure their private information is not used by criminals to fill in bogus bank loans and credit card applications.

This is by no means the first time the IRS has been the victim of online crime. According to a report published by the U.S. Government Accountability Office in January 2015, identity thieves cheated the IRS out of $5.8 billion in falsely claimed refunds during 2013 alone.

Who Stole from the IRS?
According to Peter Roskam, Illinois republican and chairman of a House subcommittee that supervises the IRS, the IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said to him in a telephone call that the theft originated from within Russia. The IRS’s investigation is still ongoing and IRS officials have neither confirmed nor denied Roskam’s statement.

John Koskinen, the IRS commissioner, did say to the press that he was confident they weren’t dealing with amateurs. “These actually are organized crime syndicates that not only we but everybody in the financial industry are dealing with.”

How Did Identity Thieves Steal $50 Million from Taxpayers?
When you think of hackers stealing money from big corporations or government agencies you probably have the image of shady programmers strong-arming the security protocols of their victims’ servers with their sophisticated code; but this isn’t what happened here. Strictly speaking the IRS wasn’t hacked. The identity thieves didn’t need to hack their way into the IRS, because they had all the answers to the IRS’s identification confirmation questions.

As Peter Roskam put it, the identity thieves “went into the front door of the IRS and unlocked it with the key.” The hackers had already obtained personal information on taxpayers, such as their date of birth, address and Social Security information, from previous hacking heists. With that information thieves were able to clear the IRS’s multi-step authentication process, including several personal verification questions that usually only the taxpayer can answer.

What Should You Do?
First, don’t panic. Your personal information is already out there. A motivated hacker can easily obtain it for a few dollars. But this doesn’t mean you should sit on your hands. Consumers can, and should, make things harder for criminals. You could compare it to your home’s front door. No matter how much you spend on security, a professional burglar could break in, but that doesn’t mean you should leave the door open or that you shouldn’t invest in a decent security system.

Here are four things you can do right now to protect yourself after the IRS breach:

1.) Change your passwords again. This is an obvious but often overlooked measure after major breaches. Don’t use your name or words that can be found in a dictionary. The first thing hackers do is use programs that test every word in the dictionary. Instead, create your own secret codes by using anagrams or substituting letters from common words with numbers.

2.) Turn on multi-level authentication. Only use sites that offer you the option of confirming access by receiving a one-time code either via a phone message or email.

3.) Lie on security questions. With the advent of social networks and our propensity to over-share, most security questions are easy to hack. Finding out where someone went to high-school or their mother’s maiden name just isn’t that difficult anymore. Instead of offering truthful answers, provide a second password as your answer. This will make it much harder for hackers to guess your security answers.

4.) Monitor your credit. There are no fail proof security measures against identity theft. You can try to make it harder for criminals but the chances are you will fall victim to identity thieves sooner or later. You can minimize the damage of these attacks by regularly monitoring your credit by scanning your credit history with the three major credit reporting agencies.

Charitable Giving

As taxpayers are aware, charitable donations are deductible. Information concerning charitable giving has been provided directly from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and is included below.

Rules for Giving

A full discussion of the rules for charitable contributions is contained in Publication 526, which is available on the IRS website. It’s a good idea to read this information before making year-end charitable deductions and prior to claiming deductions for charitable giving on your 2014 federal income tax return. It’s especially important to understand the rules concerning cash and non-cash donations, including calculating the value of your gift.

For tax filers completing their own returns, it’s essential to read  Publication 561 to learn how to determine valuation for non-cash gifts, preferably before you have made the gift.  The IRS has provided several tips to making charitable donations.

A Few Tipsgiving

These are a few guidelines the IRS is providing before you fill out Schedule A and the section for charitable donations:

* Not all charities are created equal! Both qualified and unqualified charities exist. A list of qualified charities is available on the IRS website. The IRS cautions taxpayers that  “sounding like” a viable charity does not qualify a charity.

* You can deduct contributions to churches, synagogues, temples, mosques and government agencies even if they do not appear on the list of qualified charities.

* Cash donations and gifts are those paid in cash, but also by check, fund transfer, payroll deduction and credit card. The bank record or letter from the recipient provides sufficient documentation to fulfill the IRS requirement for maintaining records for claiming charitable cash deductions on your federal income tax return.

* Donations of household items (furniture, electronics, appliances, linens, window treatments, draperies, area rugs, etc) are deductible ONLY if they are in reasonably good shape. Non-cash donations valued at  more than $500, must be verified with a qualified appraisal retained with your tax records.

* Receiving charities should provide a thank-you letter for each contribution (money or property) of $250 or more. If the charity does not voluntarily supply such a letter, request one.

* Donations of airplanes, boats and cars are subject to specific rules. Check the IRS website for details  (www.irs.gov) and additional pertinent information.

It’s unlikely that the IRS would challenge your return solely on the basis of charitable deductions totaling less than four figures. Nonetheless, following these tips will help to keep you on the right side of filing guidelines — regardless of the size(s) of your donation(s).