Tax tips

› Tip No. 1: Preparers of returns that claim child credit face tighter rules this year. Whether CPAs, H&R Block and the like, or Great Uncle Bozo, these folks must document how they figured a filer’s claim.

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Ellen Phillips

We recently featured the top complaints of 2016. If you've been victimized in any of those circumstances, then continue reading for advice to protect yourself.

* Credit rating/score: Whether credit or debit cards, mistakes in billing can ruin any of us. Take credit cards, for example. Be sure to save each receipt in order to check statements, both paper and online. If a charge occurs you don't recall and for which you have no proof, immediately contact customer service to question and, maybe, dispute that amount. It's possible your credit card information has been compromised.

Carry all cards and other personal info (such as a passport or insurance card) in RFID blocking sleeves. These little treasures prevent passersby or drivers who carry skimmers from secretly stealing your confidential info or, much worse, your identity.

Scammers often interject small amounts on billing statements that cardholders might not question; $1.99 on half a million statements, for instance, adds up to a mountain of (stolen) money. Be vigilant.

Assuming something suspicious does occur, get hold of your credit reports from the big three: Equifax ( 1-800-685-1111; Experian ( 1-888-EXPERIAN (397-3742); and TransUnion ( 1-800-916-8800. Federal law entitles us to one free credit report from each bureau every 12 months. Request free annual credit reports from Equifax, Experian and TransUnion at (the ONLY legitimate site).

If you need an additional credit report during the year, purchase one directly from each of the three. I'm so paranoid about ID theft, I used to get my freebies — one every two months and then purchase the remainder. However, I now utilize LifeLock, which carefully watches for me. If any dispute arises, quickly contact the agencies: otherwise, your credit may be damaged beyond repair. I always advise a credit freeze if such an occasion arises, which blocks anyone from opening an account in your name.

Debit cards do not carry the same $50 max or, normally, zero charge for stolen info. If we don't maintain a careful count on our bank accounts — particularly if using debit cards — some creep can abscond with the account number (ATM skimmer, perhaps, or a quick click of his phone camera) and raid your hard-earned funds.

While debit cards are much less trouble than writing checks, there are some severe drawbacks, including the worse possible scenario. Let's say you don't regularly check your account, so you haven't a clue that a scammer has stolen your account number (from a variety of methods, I might add). Now, clearly, if you report a debit card loss before it's used without your permission, your liability is zero, just like with a credit card. Unfortunately, if a person waits to report a stolen card or theft of the debit card number, his financial risk increases.

1) Your loss is limited to $50 if you notify your bank or credit union within two business days after discovering your loss.

2) Loss is limited to $500 if you report it within 60 days after your account statement was mailed to you.

3) Your liability is unlimited if you miss the 60-day deadline. In fact, you could lose everything in the account linked to your debit card plus any overdraft fees/penalties. Beware of skimmers/cameras placed in the machines, creeps stealing via theft-friendly devices, anyone looking over or at you if the card is visible, choosing a PIN number that only you know and not a phone number or birthday, and keep the card safe from prying eyes and devices by securing it in an RFID card protector.

* Impostor scams: These can be a fright for seniors, especially if someone posing as your grandchild, pleading for you to immediately send money to bail him or her out of jail for a mistaken arrest or some other such dire emergency. (This on goes on all the time; after all, lots of phone calls will at some point reach a bunch of "Grammies" or "Pawpaws.") If you're in doubt, ask the so-called "grandchild" a question that only he or she would be able to answer. I bet they hang up before you do.

One of the more recent occurrences is scammers using fake caller ID information to trick you into thinking they are someone you know or trust, such as a government agency or your cable provider. This practice is called caller ID spoofing, and scammers don't care whose phone number they use. Again, apply smart practices to protect yourself and those in your household.

1) Never rely on caller ID to verify who's calling.

2) If you get a strange call from the government, hang up. If you want to check it out, visit the official (.gov) website for contact information. Government employees don't call out of the blue to demand money or account information.

3) Never ever give out — or confirm — personal or financial information to someone who calls.

4) Don't wire money or send money using a reloadable card.

5) Never pay anyone who calls out of the blue, even if the name or number on the caller ID looks legit.

6) Finally, if the person on the other end of the line makes you feel pressured to act immediately, hang up.

To be continued...

This week's column marks the start of our annual Tax Tips to help consumers with filing their (2016) income taxes.

Contact Ellen Phillips at or at 423-757-6340.