BARNEGAT, NJ - When it comes to reporting news, the media has a general rule of thumb. As journalists, the standard objective is to resist becoming part of the story. It's the reason you won't see most reporters take to the podium during community meetings of any kind. News organizations save their questions for one on one interviews. Meanwhile, this local reporter's personal story illustrates how the threat of identity theft hits home entirely too close for comfort. 

 I generally cringe at the thought of infusing first-person narration to tell any story. In this case, it’s the only way of adding authenticity. From all appearances, I was the intended victim of identity theft or maybe even a ransom attempt to take over my computer.  Fortunately, I avoided letting it get that far.

Yesterday, I received confirmation of a bill payment directed to an email address I maintain as part of my affiliation with Writefully Inspired, a professional writing service. My first clue that something was amiss was the fact that I’ve never even heard of the vendor that thanked me for paying them. Additionally, I noticed the email attached a zip file.  Rather than make any calls to the number with a strange area code  – or open any files, I checked my accounts. Not surprisingly, nothing showed up that matched this transaction.

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Problems such as this create havoc for individuals throughout the world.  At the beginning of the year, the Barnegat Police Department took to its Facebook page to inform residents how to recognize and avoid phishing scams.  They also included a link from the Federal Trade Commission on how to handle phishing attacks.

“The problem is so big that it has ensnared public safety agencies, public healthcare organizations, and municipalities, shared Barnegat Police Chief Keith Germain. “Some have even had to pay ransom in bitcoins.”

During tax time, the Federal Government also notices an increase in identity theft attempts. They’ve come up with their own list of suggestions, which they provided in a recent press release.

Tax-related ID theft occurs when someone uses a taxpayer’s stolen personal information to file a tax return claiming a fraudulent refund. The thieves use personal information like a stolen Social Security number.

The IRS and its partners are constantly working to combat these types of crimes, but they can’t do it alone. Taxpayers play an important role when it comes to preventing identify theft.

Here are some tips to help taxpayers protect themselves against identity theft. Taxpayers should:

  • Always use security software. This software should have firewall and anti-virus protections.
  • Use strong, unique passwords. They should also consider using a password manager.
  • Learn to recognize and avoid phishing emails, threatening calls and texts from thieves. These scammers pose as legitimate organizations such as banks, credit card companies, and even the IRS.
  • Do not click on links from unsolicited emails or unknown senders. Also, people shouldn’t click on links or download attachments from emails that seem suspicious, even if they appear to be from senders they know.
  • Protect personal information and that of any dependents. For example, people shouldn’t routinely carry around their Social Security cards. They should also make sure tax records are secure.

As for me, I was initially planning on just ignoring the phishing attempt and breathe a sigh of relief that I didn’t fall for it. However, I think I’ll do better than that – and report it.