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Money January 2015

Dollar Sense

Potpourri: Stuff You Should Know to Keep Your Money and Your Identity Safe… Plus a Few Freebies

By Teresa Ambord

Of course, the details I would get would actually be a computer infected with malware through which they would attempt to steal my identity and my assets. The thieves finished by wishing me a Happy Thanksgiving. Wasn't that nice? Bless their thieving little hearts.

It’s Tax Time: Be Careful Who You Allow to Do Your Taxes

Before you hand over your tax information, which includes your Social Security number and those of your spouse and dependents, to someone you barely know, do some checking.

The Internal Revenue Service warns that many unscrupulous people have made small fortunes fleecing the public through tax preparation. As a result, tax preparers are now required to get an IRS‑issued Preparer Tax Identification Number (PTIN). But scoundrels find ways around all rules.

In this economy, they take advantage of the fact that we are all seeking deals. Today’s thief may look no different from a bona fide tax accountant, wearing a nice suit and carrying an expensive brief case. Some actually do have the credentials, but not the scruples, as you well know, the appearance of prosperity doesn’t equate to honesty. More likely, if a person is a scoundrel, dressing well is a sign of a higher level of thievery. (Bernie Madoff was legitimate in terms of credentials as a high‑level investment adviser…and he ripped off the public, his friends, and even his family for $65 billion, operating over a period of decades.)

Here are three red flags that the IRS warns of when you are choosing a tax preparer. Take the time to ask about these points.

  1. Is your preparer willing to provide his or her PTIN?
  2. Is the preparer willing to sign your return?
  3. Will the preparer ask you to sign an incomplete return?


If the answers to these questions are not satisfactory, don't walk away, run!

In addition, ask about qualifications, such as training, memberships in professional organizations relevant to tax preparation, and continuing education. The tax code is ever‑changing, so ask the preparer if he or she has kept up with tax courses.

You can also do a simple background check by contacting the Better Business Bureau ( They should be able to tell you if they have received complaints about the individual or company.

Even licensed professionals can be hiding some scary baggage, so take a little time to find out.

Once you find a reputable preparer, make an appointment early in the season. Good preparers will do their best to give you great service at any time, but they are human and time pressure may result in errors, and higher fees because of demand.


What About Doing Your Taxes at Home?

There are some good home preparation software packages out there. If your return is not complex, this might be all you need. Generally you can also get help from professional auditors through the program (like Turbo Tax) by paying a small fee in case you run into uncertainties or want extra assurance. If you are going to do your tax yourself, take some security precautions.

  • Make sure your computer protection software is up‑to‑date. Check your firewall, virus protection, and anti‑spyware.
  • Use your own computer, not a public computer, like at the library or senior center.
  • Use a strong password to protect your return.
  • Use an external storage device, like a flash drive to store your return, and put it away in a safe place. If for some reason you must keep your return on your computer, once it is e‑filed (or printed and paper filed), remove pieces of information like Social Security number, birth date, bank account numbers, and address and then save the file. That’s safer, and if necessary, those details can be added back later.


Package Delivery Scam…Getting Ever More Common

Thieves know that many of us get packages from the postal service, UPS, FedEx, and others. That makes it more likely that, when we receive a message saying “You have a package,” or more common, “We tried to deliver…” we’ll open the message and click the link.

I no sooner learned of this scam than one landed in my inbox. The original message was all decked out in a Costco logo that looked authentic. That’s the work of some diligent thief who put a lot of effort into making it more believable.

I couldn't reproduce the message word for word because my computer recognized it as bad, even though I typed the words in myself, based on the message the thieves sent. That tells me that message has made the rounds enough to be labeled as heinous, perhaps by the Federal Trade Commission. Basically it claimed to be from Costco's online store, letting me know it had a package for me, if I would just be so kind as to click on their handy link and get the details. Of course, the details I would get would actually be a computer infected with malware through which they would attempt to steal my identity and my assets. The thieves finished by wishing me a Happy Thanksgiving. Wasn't that nice? Bless their thieving little hearts.

If a message comes from a retailer, like Costco, if you think it might be real, call the store. If the message claims to be from the post office, UPS or FedEx, you should know, they will not contact you by mail to alert you of an undelivered package. If you are in doubt, get out your phone book, look up the number of the delivery service, and ask them. Do not rely on the phone number or e‑mail address in the message.


What else can you do?

File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission online, by going to and typing in “complaint.” A video will guide you. Or call 1‑877‑FTC‑HELP.


More Birthday Freebies, and Some Freebies for Signing Up

Every month I post a few birthday freebies. But you can view the whole list here:

Someone has gone to a lot of trouble to keep these freebies updated. But just to be sure you don't waste a trip, you might want to check with the restaurant before you go to make sure the deal is still offered. Many of these require that you print a coupon. Just think…if you have a ton of friends or a slew of grandkids, you can treat each one to a freebie on his or her birthday.

Dairy Queen: buy one Blizzard, get one free. You’ll need to log onto the website below and print a coupon.

Denny’s: Good old Denny’s still gives a free Grand Slam breakfast on the actual day of your birthday, and you’ll need to show proof. To be safe, call ahead to be sure you can get your freebie.

Earl of Sandwich: a free sandwich, salad, or wrap on your birthday. And a free brownie just for signing up.

El Chico: free fried ice cream on your birthday, plus for signing up, a free buy one get one free offer.


Teresa Ambord is a former accountant and Enrolled Agent with the IRS. Now she writes full time from her home, mostly for business, and about family when the inspiration strikes.

Meet Teresa