The IRS confirms that despite the government shutdown, it will begin processing tax returns on Jan. 28 and provide refunds to taxpayers as scheduled.

“For taxpayers who usually file early in the year and have all of the needed documentation, there is no need to wait to file,” explains the IRS. “Software companies and tax professionals will be accepting and preparing tax returns before Jan. 28 and then will submit the returns when the IRS systems open later this month. The IRS strongly encourages people to file their tax returns electronically to minimize errors and for faster refunds.”

Jan. 28 also marks the official opening of tax refund fraud season.

Armed with your name, Social Security number, and date of birth, crooks can attempt to electronically file fraudulent returns early in the tax filing season using bogus earnings information prior to the IRS receiving actual reported income from employers and financial institutions.

Those promised fast refunds? They legally can be routed to the crooks’ prepaid debit cards.

As a result, victims aren’t aware of the fraud until their legitimate returns are either later rejected, or there’s a notification that the return is under review before they’ve filed.

The massive 2017 Equifax breach, compromised the most sensitive and valuable personal information of 145 million people. While the IRS notes new safeguards have significantly reduced tax refund fraud, it can’t eliminate it.

Besides doing everything possible to personally protect your Social Security number and date of birth, you can help prevent this crime by filing as early as possible. A security freeze with the credit reporting agencies won’t stop this type of ID theft.

However, if you filed your federal tax return last year with an address in identified high-risk states — including Florida, Michigan, Illinois, California, Georgia, Maryland, Nevada, Delaware, Rhode Island or the District of Columbia — you have the option to apply for an IRS Identity Protection PIN. The protective PIN must be included on the return or the IRS won’t process it. A new PIN is issued for each filing season at the beginning of January by postal mail. For more information, go to www.irs.gov/getanippin.

Regardless, be on the lookout for tax-related scams.

Scambusters.org reports that tax impostor scams have cost consumers more than $63 million over the past five years. One of the newest and most widespread tricks, known as the tax transcript scam, involves a fairly convincing phishing attempt.

“Victims receive an email pretending to be from ‘IRS Online’ with an attachment labeled ‘Tax Account Transcript.’ Genuine transcripts are summaries of individuals’ tax records and histories,” explains Scambusters. “But this attachment carries a dangerous payload — a piece of malware that tries to steal information from your PC.”

The IRS emphasizes it doesn’t send unsolicited emails to the public, especially a sensitive document such as a tax transcript.

Then there are scam email and text messages designed to look like they’re coming from the IRS or a tax preparation software company requesting confirmation of personal information needed for some form or updating your e-file. Just delete them.

And remember, the IRS only makes initial contact by postal mail. It doesn’t make phone calls. Even if “IRS” is displayed on a caller ID or you’re told notification letters were returned as undeliverable.

For help preparing your taxes, IRS-certified, AARP Foundation Tax-Aide volunteers can prepare and electronically file basic tax returns at no cost. There’s no age requirement, and clients don’t have to be AARP members. Area locations include Port Charlotte, North Port, Englewood, Arcadia, and Venice. For specific sites and schedules by ZIP code, call 888-227-7669 or go to www.aarp.org/findtaxhelp.

Looking for a tax preparer for more complicated returns? Go to the IRS preparer directory at www.irs.gov/chooseataxpro.

Finally, if you’re due a refund, monitor its status online or with the IRS2Go mobile app at www.irs.gov/refunds.

David Morris is the Sun’s consumer advocate. Contact him c/o the Sun, 23170 Harborview Road, Charlotte Harbor, FL 33980; email dmorris@sun-herald.com; or leave a message at 941-206-1114.

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