- ID Theft
- What’s in Your Wallet or Purse
- Phony E-mail
- Pop-up Ads
- Only Access Secure Websites
- Avoid Phishing Scams
- Security Software
- Educate Children
- Phony Charities
- Impersonating the IRS
- Back Up Files
- If It Is Too Good to Be True
As much as the Internet has changed our lives for the good, it has also opened us up to threats from crooks from all over the world. They are smart and always coming up with a new trick to separate you from your hard-earned dollars or with an illegal way to use your stolen ID. They apply for loans and credit cards with stolen IDs, file fraudulent tax returns, make purchases with stolen credit card info, and tap into your bank account with stolen account information, and the list goes on. As a result, everyone needs to be very careful and mindful of the tricks used by these scammers to not end up becoming a victim.
This office is committed to using safeguards that protect your information from data theft. To further protect your identity, you can also take steps to stop thieves. This article looks at a variety of tricks and schemes crooks use to dupe individuals, along with actions you can take to avoid being scammed, keep your computer secure, avoid phishing and malware, and protect your personal information.
The primary information ID thieves are looking for is your name, Social Security number, and birth date. So, constantly be aware of where you use that information, and always question anyone’s need for it when they ask. The fewer institutions that have your ID information, the lower the chances your data will be hacked. Treat personal information like cash — don’t hand it out to just anyone. Social Security numbers, credit card numbers, and bank and even utility account numbers can be used to help steal a person’s money or open new accounts. Every time you receive a request for personal information, you should think about whether the request is truly necessary. Scammers will do everything they can to appear trustworthy and legitimate.
Stolen IDs are also frequently used by cyber thieves to file fraudulent tax returns in your name, to take advantage of refundable tax credits such as the earned income tax credit, the child tax credit and the American Opportunity Education Credit, leaving you to deal with the IRS’s identity theft protocol.
What’s in Your Wallet or Purse
What is in your wallet or purse can make a big difference if it is stolen. Besides the credit cards and whatever cash or valuables you might be carrying, you also need to be concerned about your identity being stolen, which is a far more serious problem. Think about it: your driver’s license has 2 of the 3 keys to your identity. And if you also carry your Social Security card, bingo! An identity thief then has all the information needed.
Be aware that an unsolicited e-mail with a request to download an attachment or click on a URL could appear to be from someone you know, such as a friend, work colleague or tax professional. It could be that their e-mail has been hacked and someone else is sending the e-mail, hoping to trick you into some scam. Be alert for suspicious wording or content, and don’t click on any embedded links or attachments if there is any doubt.
Don’t assume Internet advertisements, pop-up ads, or e-mails are from reputable companies. If an ad or offer looks too good to be true, it most likely is not true. Take a moment to check out the company behind it. Type the company or product’s name into a search engine with terms like “review,” “complaint” or “scam.”
Only Access Secure Websites
Only provide personal information over reputable, encrypted websites. Shopping or banking online should be done only on sites that use encryption. People should look for “https” at the beginning of a Web address (the “s” stands for “secure”) and be sure “https” is on every page of the site.
Avoid Phishing Scams
The easiest way for criminals to steal sensitive data is simply to ask for it. Learn to recognize phishing e-mails, calls or texts from crooks that pose as familiar organizations such as banks, credit card companies or even the IRS. These ruses generally urge taxpayers to give up sensitive data such as passwords, Social Security numbers and bank account or credit card numbers. They are called phishing scams because they attempt to lure the receiver into taking the bait.
For example, you might get an e-mail disguised as being from your credit card company asking you to verify your password. Companies will never do that because only you have that information, which is why you have to change it if you forget it.
It is good practice to use security software. An anti-malware program should provide protection from viruses, Trojans, spyware and adware.
Set security software to update automatically so it can be upgraded as threats emerge. Also, make sure the security software is on at all times. Invest in encryption software to ensure data at rest is protected from unauthorized access by hackers or identity thieves.
You should never download “security” software from a pop-up ad. A pervasive ploy is a pop-up ad that indicates it has detected a virus on your computer. Don’t fall for it. The download most likely will install some type of malware. Reputable security software companies do not advertise in this manner.
Today’s children are probably more adept at using the Internet than their parents but are not mindful of the hazards. Educate your children about not giving out or posting online their Social Security numbers or birth dates. It may also be appropriate not to allow them to use a device that contains sensitive information such as tax returns, financial links, etc. It is not uncommon for crooks to use children’s IDs to file fraudulent tax returns. Also, block your children from freely downloading apps to their mobile devices without parental supervision.
Taxpayers have reported an increase in e-file problems because their children’s SSNs have already been used in a previously e-filed return, which results in the e-filed return being rejected.
Use strong passwords. The longer the password, the tougher it will be to crack. Most sites require a minimum of eight characters, with at least one number and one character. Many sources suggest using at least 10 characters; 12 is ideal for most home users. Mix letters, numbers and special characters. Try to be unpredictable — don’t use names, birthdates or common words. Don’t use the same password for many accounts, and don’t share them on the phone, in texts or by e-mail. Consider using a passphrase versus a password. And remember, legitimate companies will not send messages asking for passwords.
The fraudsters pop up whenever there are natural disasters, such as earthquakes or floods, trying to coax you into making donations that will go into the scammer’s pockets and not to helping the victims of the disaster. They use the phone, mail, e-mail, websites and social networking sites to perpetrate their crimes. The following are some tips to avoid fraudulent fundraisers:
- Donate to known and trusted charities. Be on the alert for charities that seem to have sprung up overnight in connection with current events.
- Ask if a caller is a paid fundraiser, who he/she works for and what percentages of the donation go to the charity and to the fundraiser. If any clear answers are not provided, consider donating to a different organization.
- Don’t give out personal or financial information—including a credit card or bank account number—unless the charity is known and reputable. You might end up donating more than you had planned on.
- Never send cash. The organization may never receive the donation, and there won’t be a record for tax purposes.
- Never wire money to a charity. It’s like sending cash.
- If a donation request comes from a group claiming to help a local community agency (such as local police or firefighters), ask the people at the local agency if they have heard of the group and are getting financial support.
- Verify the charity — Check out the charity with the Better Business Bureau (BBB), Wise Giving Alliance, Charity Navigator, CharityWatch or IRS.gov.
Impersonating the IRS
Thieves will try to impersonate the IRS in an attempt to frighten you into making a quick payment, without checking on the validity of you owing any taxes.
The very first thing you should be aware of is that the IRS never initiates contact in any other way than by U.S. mail. So, if you receive an e-mail or a phone call out of the blue with no prior contact, then it is a scam. DO NOT RESPOND to the e-mail or open any links included in the e-mail. If it is a phone call, simply HANG UP.
Additionally, it is important for taxpayers to know that the IRS:
- Never asks for credit card, debit card or prepaid card information over the telephone.
- Never insists that taxpayers use a specific payment method to pay tax obligations.
- Never requests immediate payment over the telephone.
- Will not take enforcement action immediately following a phone conversation. Taxpayers usually receive prior written notification of IRS enforcement action involving IRS tax liens or levies. Some scammers even threaten immediate arrest if the payment is not made immediately — don’t be bullied by these criminals.
When in question, never make tax payments or provide any information without calling this office first.
Back Up Files
No system is completely secure. Back up important files, including federal and state tax returns, business books and records, financials and other sensitive data onto remote storage, a removable disc or a back-up drive.
If It Is Too Good to Be True, It Probably Isn’t True
Many e-mail scams are based around supposed foreign lotto winnings, foreign inheritances and foreign quick-buck investment schemes. Don’t let the lure of the dollar signs cloud your better judgement. The only one that makes out in these instances is the cyber crook.
Please call this office if you have any questions.
Generally speaking, tax return mistakes are a lot more common than you probably realize. Taxes are naturally complicated, and the paperwork required to file them properly is often convoluted. This is especially true if you’re filing your taxes yourself — and all of this is in reference to a fairly normal year as far as the IRS is concerned.
The 2018 tax year, however, certainly does not qualify as a “normal year.”
With the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, even seasoned financial professionals are having a hard time digesting all of the changes that they and their clients are now dealing with. All of this is to say that if you’ve just discovered that you’ve made a BIG mistake on your tax return this year, the first thing you should do is stop and take a deep breath. It happens. It’s understandable. There ARE steps that you can take to correct the situation quickly — you just have to keep a few key things in mind.
Fixing Tax Return Mistakes: Here’s What You Need to Do
All told, you have three years from the date that you originally filed your tax return (or two years from the date you paid the tax bill in question) to make any corrections necessary to fix your mistakes. If nothing about your return ultimately changes, you probably don’t have anything to worry about — in fact, there’s a good chance that the IRS will catch the mistake and fix it themselves. This is especially true in terms of math errors, or if you’ve left out an important document. The IRS will probably send you a letter letting you know what happened and what you need to do to correct it.
If fixing the mistake ultimately results in you owing more taxes, you should pay that difference as quickly as possible. Penalties and interest will keep accruing on that unpaid portion of your bill for as long as it takes for you to pay it, so it’s in your best interest to take care of this as soon as you can afford to do so.
If you’ve made a much larger mistake (like if you understated or overstated your income, for example), you’ll need to file what is called an amended tax return. This is essentially your “second chance” at getting things right, and the timetable above still applies. Understand, however, that ALL errors must be corrected in the amended return. This means that if you find three errors that will reduce your tax liability and two that actually increase it, you are legally required to correct all five. You can’t correct only the mistakes that benefit you.
An amended return can be used to correct a variety of issues, including but not limited to ones like:
- Overstating or understating your income
- Changing an incorrect filing status
- Accounting for dependents
- Taking care of discrepancies in terms of deductions or tax credits
If any of the above apply to the error you’ve just discovered, you can — and absolutely should — file an amended return.
A sudden increase in your tax liability notwithstanding, it’s again important to understand that even “major” errors on your income taxes aren’t really worth stressing out about. The IRS understands that sometimes mistakes happen, and they have a variety of processes in place designed to help make things right.
This does, however, underline how valuable it can be to partner with the right financial professional to do your taxes next year. You’ve got a career and a life to lead — you’re probably not going to be up to date on every small change that rolls out in the tax code. A financial professional will, as it is literally their job to do so.
If nothing else, this will help generate some much-needed peace-of-mind regarding the accuracy of your return. You won’t have to worry about whether or not the IRS is going to find some big mistake down the road because you’ve dramatically reduced the chances of those mistakes happening in the first place.
There is an excellent chance that even if you’re an expert in your particular industry, you’re probably not an expert in small business finances. This may not seem like that big of an issue on the surface. However, in order to make the best decisions possible for your company, you need to havecomplete and accurate information to work from. It’s easy to see how failing to grasp the financial side of the equation can quickly cause problems everywhere else.
For example, just because your company looks profitable on the surface doesn’t necessarily mean that this is the case. In fact, there are a number of clear ways in which your SMB might not be as profitable as it could be that are certainly worth exploring.
Not Everything Is About Sales
Maybe the most important thing for you to understand is that just because sales are high does NOT mean that your company is experiencing profitable growth in the way you think it is. This is actually just one small part of a much larger (and more complicated) story.
Sales could be going up AND profits could be going down in a number of ways. Maybe you’re selling a higher volume of low-margin items while also not selling as many high-margin goods. Perhaps the cost to actually make your product has increased higher (and faster) than your revenue. It’s possible that your operating expenses are so high that even though you’re increasing sales, your business is still not as profitable as it could be.
The lesson here is that you need to look beyond sales growth to find out what is really happening with your company. If you do discover a problem like those outlined above, come up with a specific solution designed to address those particular issues in the most effective way possible.
Dive Deep Into Your Line-Item Profits
Likewise, you need to recognize the difference between bottom-line profits and line-item profits — particularly in terms of the health of your business year-over-year. Instead of just looking at the bottom line, look at the tangible contribution that each product or service makes to that bottom line.
Break down all of your sales by product lines, individual products and services. Is Product A losing so much money that it is eating into the profits generated by the hugely successful Product B? If that’s the case, Product B probably isn’t as “successful” as you thought it was.
Don’t Forget About Margins
Finally, paying attention to your profit margin percentages can tell you a number of critical things about the financial health of your company, essentially all at the same time. You’ll be able to determine whether:
- You’re correctly pricing and promoting your products in a way that drives profitable growth.
- All of the products and services you’re offering are profitable to begin with
- The true value of the relationships you’re forging with your customers, and how long they last on average
- If you’re allocating resources in the most efficient way possible, thus maximizing profitability whenever possible.
Again — figuring out whether or not your small business is as profitable as it can be involves a lot more than just looking at any one particular line item on a balance sheet. Often, it is a combination of many things — each representing their own individual piece of the puzzle that is your company. Only by understanding the bigger picture will you have the information you need to see where you truly stand…and what you need to do about it moving forward.
In the end, the most important thing for you to understand is that while you may be an expert in running your small business, you’re probably not (nor are you expected to be) an expert in small business finances. Those are two entirely separate concepts and should always be treated as such.
Partnering with the right financial professional isn’t something that you do after your organization is already up and running. It should be a natural part of the process of launching a business in the first place. There are so many decisions that will ultimately affect your cashflow and taxes moving forward — from the financial structure that you set up to the entity you choose during formation. One wrong move at any of these points can artificially limit your ability to make money, and that is a difficult position for any entrepreneur to be in.
Instead, partner with a seasoned financial professional immediately and look to this person for insight and guidance as often as possible. If nothing else, they will make sure that the foundation upon which your company is built is as strong as possible — thus eliminating many and even all of the potential issues that could hold you back in the future.
- Reasons to Keep Records
- Statute of Limitations
- Maintaining Record of Asset Basis
If you are a neat-nick and your tax return for last year has been completed and filed, you are probably thinking about getting rid of the tax records related to that return. On the other hand, if you are afraid to dump old records, you are probably looking for a box to put them in so you can store them away. Well, you do have to keep them for a period of time but not forever.
Generally, tax records are retained for two reasons: (1) in case the IRS or a state agency decides to question the information on your tax returns or (2) to keep track of the tax basis of your capital assets, so that you can minimize your tax liability when you dispose of those assets.
With certain exceptions, the statute of limitations for assessing additional taxes is three years from the return’s due date or its filling date, whichever is later. However, the statute in many states is one year longer than that of federal law. In addition, the federal assessment period is extended to six years if more than 25% of a taxpayer’s gross income is omitted from a tax return. In addition, of course, the three-year period doesn’t begin elapsing until a return has been filed. There is no statute of limitations for the filing of false or fraudulent returns to evade tax payments.
If none of the above exceptions applies to you, then for federal purposes, you can probably discard most of your tax records that are more than three years old; you will want to add a year to that time period if you live in a state with a longer statute.
Examples — Sue filed her 2015 tax return before the due date of April 15, 2016. She will be able to safely dispose of most of her 2015 records after April 15, 2019. On the other hand, Don filed his 2015 return on June 2, 2016. He needs to keep his records until at least June 2, 2019. In both cases, the taxpayers should keep their records for a year or two longer if their states have statutes of limitations longer than three years. Note: If a due date falls on a Saturday, Sunday, or holiday, the actual due date is the next business day.
The problem with discarding all of the records for a particular year once the statute of limitations has expired is that many taxpayers combine their normal tax records with the records that substantiate the basis of their capital assets. The basis records need to be separated and should not be discarded until after the statute has expired for when a given asset was disposed of. Thus, it makes more sense to keep separate records for each asset. The following are examples of records that fall into the basis category:
- Stock-acquisition data — If you own stock in a corporation, keep the purchase records until at least four years after the year when you sell the stock. This data is necessary for proving the amount of profit (or loss) from the sale. If your sales for a given year result in a net loss of more than $3,000, you may need to keep your purchase and sale records for even longer. This is because $3,000 is the maximum capital loss that can be deducted in any one year, so the excess loss must be carried over to the following year(s) until it is used up. If the IRS audits a return that includes a carryover loss, it will ask to see the records from the original purchase, even if it happened more than three years in the past. Thus, don’t dispose of such records until the statute of limitations has passed for the last year when you claimed a carryover loss.
- Stock and mutual fund statements (if you reinvest dividends) — Many taxpayers use the dividends that they receive from stocks or mutual funds to buy more shares of the same stock or fund. These reinvested amounts add to the basis of the property and reduce the gain when They are eventually sold. Keep all such dividend statements for at least four years after the final sale.
- Tangible property purchase and improvement records — Keep records of home, investment, rental-property, or business-property acquisitions; the related capital improvements; and the final settlement statements from the sale for at least four years after the underlying property is sold.
For example, when Congress instituted the large $250,000 home-sale-gain exclusion (which is $500,000 for married couples filing jointly) many years ago, homeowners began to be laxer in maintaining their home-improvement records, thinking that the large exclusions would cover any potential appreciation in their home’s value. Now, that exclusion may not always be enough to cover the gains from a sale, particularly for markets where property values have steadily risen; thus, keeping records of all such home improvements is vital.
What about the Tax Returns Themselves? Although the backup documents that you use to prepare your returns can usually be disposed of after the statutory period has expired, you may want to consider indefinitely keeping a copy of the tax returns themselves (the 1040, the attached schedules/statements, and the state return). If you just don’t have room to keep copies of your paper returns, digitizing them is an option.
If you have questions about whether to retain certain records, give our office a call. Before discarding any records, it is a good idea to make sure that they will not be needed down the road.