Although most people are aware of the dangers of email and identity theft, many overlook a more low-tech way in which they can lose important personal information -- through their mailboxes. Identity thieves can simply stroll up to an unlocked mailbox in a quiet neighborhood after a mail carrier has been through and help themselves to credit card bills, bank statements and similar documents.
The risk is especially great during tax season, when so much important information can land in your mailbox. The W-2 forms that you receive from your employer, for example, contain all the information that someone needs to open a credit card account in your name, including your social security number, the name and address of your employer and even the amount of money you earned during the previous year.
As tax season gets underway, banks send out statements detailing the interest you've earned on your accounts during the previous year. Investment firms mail out forms listing the dividends you've received on your 401(k) and other investments. For a skilled identity thief, these documents provide the data they'd need to hack into your accounts and steal your money. You may not even become aware of this theft until you get the next statement.
You also need to be cautious about outgoing mail. If you place your completed tax forms in your own mailbox in anticipation of the carrier picking it up later, you're practically handing a potential identity thief the information he needs to impersonate you.
Mailbox thieves are also very happy when people start getting their tax refund checks - there can be good pickings for them in unguarded mailboxes for several weeks after the tax deadline.
There are some things you can do to ensure that your identity (and your money) stays safe at tax time.
Employers are supposed to have W-2 forms in the mail by January 31. If you're expecting a W-2 and haven't received it by early February you should get in touch with that employer to find out what's happened to it. (To save money and increase security, many companies are starting to post this information online to reduce the risk of their employees' personal information falling into the wrong hands.)
Some banks and investment firms will also give you the option of having your statements emailed to you and/or posted online. (Of course, you then run the risk that someone could hack into those online accounts.)
If you file your taxes by mail, either hand the envelope directly to your letter carrier, put it into a blue mailbox or even better, take the envelope to a post office and mail it there. You may also want to look into filing electronically, since you'll avoid the danger of mail theft that way. Expecting a refund? You can ask the IRS to deposit it directly into your bank account. If you prefer a paper check, you can estimate when your check should be coming by consulting the IRS' Tax Refund Status and Tax Refund Dates. You'll also find a toll-free number to use for automated status checks on that Web page. If your refund check hasn't come within a week or so after it's been mailed, you can contact the IRS to see what has happened.
Of course, tax time isn't the only time to protect what's in your mailbox. The U.S. Postal Inspection Service has several tips to keep the information in your mailbox safe year round. Check out their suggestions and keep your credit card information - and all your personal information - safe from identity thieves.