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A Prime Time for ID Theft

Be extra cautious about tax documents coming into your mailbox

En español | Q. I've heard that early in the year is a particularly risky time for identity theft. Why so?

A. Because January and February provide a once-a-year opportunity for identity thieves to get especially choice personal data — these months are the time you receive tax-filing documents from employers, banks, mortgage companies and other institutions.

W-2s, 1099 forms, brokerage statements and other paperwork are a treasure trove of sensitive information — including Social Security numbers — for identity thieves who follow postal carriers and pilfer the easily identified "Important Tax Information" envelopes after they're placed in your mailbox.

Some thieves go as far as opening these letters, copying the vital information and placing them back in your box a day or two later, so you never know, says the Identity Theft Resource Center.

This is not to say thieves will use any gleaned personal data right away. In fact, some may wait months before opening fraudulent credit accounts in your name. But mail theft remains the top "low-tech" method of identity theft (followed by stolen wallets), and, in coming weeks, it's easier for the crooks to gain access to such information.

Having a mail slot in your front door or having a locked mailbox are great defenses against mail tampering. But consider some other steps to protect against the theft of sensitive paperwork and other enticing mail:

  • Rent a P.O. box at a U.S. Post Office and use this for sensitive mail. The USPS does background checks on its employees and uses surveillance equipment. That may not be the case at commercial stores that provide mailboxes.

  • During this critical period, have your mail held at the post office, where you'll need to show a photo ID to get it. This is similar to a vacation hold.

  • Don't assume you'll always be there to get mail when it arrives. Even if you work from home or are retired, postal deliveries can vary on different days. A mail thief needs only 30 seconds.

  • Keep notes of when expected items arrive. If they seem delayed, call the sender to ask why. If you suspect mail theft, immediately contact your local office of the Postal Inspection Service.

Sid Kirchheimer writes about consumer and health issues. Have a question for Sid Kirchheimer about a new product, a new kind of bank account? Check out the Ask Sid archive. If you don’t find your answer there, send a query.

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