Common Law - The FindLaw Consumer Protection Law Blog

February 2015 Archives

E-Filing Your Tax Return? Top 5 Tips to Protect Your Data

You're already worried about identity theft. And you're probably worried about your taxes as well. As it turns out, if you're planning on e-filing your tax return, you might have to worry about someone stealing your data to file a fraudulent tax return.

If you've already e-filed, you may want to confirm with your tax-preparation company or the IRS that only one return has been filed with your Social Security number on it. If you've yet to file, here are a few ways to protect your personal data when e-filing your return:

1. Secure Your SSN.

Most fraudulent tax returns were filed with a stolen Social Security number, the theft of which is distressingly easy. While the worry with SSNs was having your Social Security card stolen from a wallet or purse, now we use the numbers more frequently and online.

We give out our Social Security numbers to employers, health care providers, and even cable companies, so it's no surprise they would targets for hackers. Hackers stole around 6 million Social Security numbers last year, and fraudsters don't need much more information than that in order to file a tax return in your name.

Give out your Social Security number as little as possible, and only use the last four digits when you can. And you should probably find a safe place to store your Social Security card, rather than carrying it around with you.

2. Protect Past Returns.

It's good practice to keep records of our past tax filings, but these can be another source of personal information that identity thieves can exploit. If you're keeping paper copies of previous returns, make sure they are secure. And if you're tossing out old returns, it's best to shred them to avoid exposing your data.

3. Use a Trusted Preparer.

Admittedly, when one of the largest e-filing companies is facing allegations that it allowed online bandits to file millions of fraudulent tax returns, it's hard to know whom to trust. It may help to keep an eye on the news, but ultimately, the convenience of filing our taxes online comes with the risk that criminals will exploit that ease.

4. Report Fraud.

As noted above, confirm with your tax preparation company and the IRS that no other returns have been filed using your Social Security number. If you do discover that someone else has filed a fraudulent return, report the fraud immediately. The Department of Justice is aggressive in prosecuting identity theft and tax fraud cases.

5. Monitor Your Credit Report.

You can check your credit report for free, and it may be your first indicator that someone has stolen your identity or filed a fraudulent tax return. Even if your tax filing went smoothly, you should be diligent about protecting your identity online.

We all love the convenience and time-saving aspects of e-filing for our tax returns. And while e-filing companies can help us file our taxes, it's up to us to protect our personal data.

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The government sent incorrect tax information to some 800,000 people who signed up for insurance plans through HealthCare.gov last year. The error is expected to delay the tax returns for about one out of every five people who used the federal insurance marketplace to avoid tax penalties for being uninsured.

If you were one of these enrollees, what do you need to know about the mix-up, and how will it affect your tax filing?

What Happened?

The error occurred in calculating the premiums for consumers who signed up for Obamacare via HealthCare.gov and received subsidies to help purchase insurance in 2014. These tax credits are based on consumers' income and certain insurance premiums. 

The problem: Some of the insurance premiums were miscalculated, leading to incorrect information on consumers' tax forms. As of yet, officials are not sure why the miscalculation occurred.

How Will It Affect My Taxes?

Because the tax credit calculation uses a taxpayer's income, and because incomes vary, some people will owe more and some will owe less. There's no way to know until those affected by the error receive updated and accurate tax information.

What Should I Do?

If you enrolled in health coverage through HealthCare.gov, you may want to hold off on filing your taxes just yet. The HealthCare.gov website had this to say:

If your form is affected by this issue, you’ll get a call and email from us in the next few days, and you will get a message in your Marketplace account here on HealthCare.gov. Once you log in, you should select your 2014 application, and then select "Tax forms." You will see a message letting you know if your 1095-A form is being corrected. This is also where you will find your corrected form when it is completed. When the corrected form is ready, we’ll send a message to your Marketplace account.

The department is due to deliver corrected tax data to consumers in the first week of March, and has urged consumers to wait to file their taxes and will provide further information to those who already have.

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Anthem Hack Spurs 'Phishing' Email Scam: How to Stay Safe

Following the Anthem hack attack that potentially exposed the personal information of some 80 million customers, another danger has arisen: "Phishing" emails attempting to scam those same customers of even more personal information.

Ars Technica reports that scammers are using the hacked information to email Anthem customers in the hopes of gaining access to customers' personal data. The extent of this phishing campaign is unknown at this time, but Anthem's press release regarding the scam asserts, "There is no indication that the scam email campaigns are being conducted by those that committed the cyber attack, or that the information accessed in the attack is being used by the scammers."

How the Scam Works

Internet scam artists are sending emails designed to look like they are from Anthem and offer recipients free credit monitoring services. Once a recipient clicks on the links embedded in the email, they are prompted to provide personal information to enroll in the service.

These email scams are known as "phishing," and once scammers have access to a person's identifying information, they can use that data to apply for lines of credit, open fraudulent bank accounts, or even steal a person's identity.

How to Protect Yourself

There are some general rules to avoid phishing scams, like keeping an eye out for suspicious email addresses, being cautious regarding embedded links in emails, and confirming with the sender that the email you received is legit.

In this particular instance, Anthem is advising customers that it is not sending emails regarding this credit monitoring service. Anthem is also "not calling members regarding the cyber attack and is not asking for credit card information or Social Security numbers over the phone." Instead, the company warned customers not to click on any links in these emails, supply any information on the website in the email, or reply to the email in any way.

Anthem will, however, be reaching out via U.S. mail and offering customers affected by the hack its own free credit monitoring and identification protections services.

You can learn more about phishing and online safety by visiting FindLaw's section on Online Scams.

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Which Cars Have the Highest, Lowest Death Rates?

A new report by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows that while car safety has continued to improve in most late-model vehicles, some vehicles still have alarmingly high death rates.

According to the IIHS, among 2011 model-year cars or equivalent earlier model vehicles, there were 28 driver deaths per million registered vehicle years through 2012. (A "registered vehicle year" equals one vehicle registered for one year.) This is down significantly from 2008-09, in which there were 48 driver deaths per million registered vehicle years. But while nine 2011 or equivalent earlier model vehicles had a driver death rate of zero, several other models had death rates exceeding 100.

Which cars have the highest and lowest death rates according to IIHS statistics? And what should drivers know when trying to choose a safe car?

Safe, Deadly Cars

The IIHS found that in general, the smallest vehicles have the highest death rates, with the Kia Rio having the highest death rate, at 149 per million registered vehicle years. Most of the vehicles that made the institute's list of safest cars -- those with 6 or fewer driver deaths per million registered vehicle years -- were SUVs or minivans, although several midsize cars also made the list.

The vehicles with the lowest rate of driver deaths include:

  • Audi A4 4WD
  • Honda Odyssey
  • Kia Sorento 2WD
  • Lexus RX 350 4WD
  • Mercedes-Benz GL-Class 4WD
  • Subaru Legacy 4WD
  • Toyota Highlander hybrid 4WD
  • Toyota Sequoia 4WD
  • Volvo XC90 4WD
  • Honda Pilot 4WD
  • Mercedes-Benz M-Class 4WD
  • Ford Crown Victoria
  • GMC Yukon 4WD
  • Acura TL 2WD
  • Chevrolet Equinox 2WD
  • Chevrolet Equinox 4WD
  • Ford Expedition 4WD
  • Ford Flex 2WD
  • Mazda CX-9 4WD

Among the vehicles with more than 46 driver deaths per million registered vehicle years were many small or mini-size vehicles, but also one full-size pickup truck and several SUVs.

The list of vehicles with the highest driver death rates, according to the IIHS, includes:

  • Kia Rio
  • Nissan Versa sedan
  • Hyundai Accent
  • Chevrolet Aveo
  • Hyundai Accent
  • Chevrolet Camaro coupe
  • Chevrolet Silverado 1500 Crew 4WD
  • Honda Civic
  • Nissan Versa hatchback
  • Ford Focus
  • Nissan Cube
  • Chevrolet HHR
  • Chevrolet Suburban 1500 2WD
  • Chevrolet Aveo
  • Mercury Grand Marquis
  • Jeep Patriot 2WD
  • Mazda 6
  • Dodge Nitro 2WD
  • Honda Civic

Vehicle Designs Have Improved Safety

One major factor in improving the safety of automobiles is improving design and safety technology. In particular, the IIHS cites electronic stabilization control (ESC) -- which helps prevent SUVs from rollover crashes -- for taking SUVs from one of the most dangerous types of vehicles a decade ago to now being being the safest of any vehicle type. Generally, the report found that as a car's size increases, the death rate declines.

Learn more about the liability for automobile accidents and injuries at FindLaw's section on Car Accident Liability.

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U.S. safety regulators have announced the recall of more than 2.1 million vehicles made by Toyota, Chrysler, and Honda for a defect that may cause the vehicle's air bags to deploy in the absence of an accident.

The recall was announced by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on Saturday, Reuters reports. The new air bag recall is unrelated to the massive ongoing Takata air bags recall. However, according to NHTSA, about 1 million of the vehicles included in the new recall are also affected by the Takata air bag recalls, which may make getting the required repairs even more urgent.

Which vehicles are included in this latest recall, and what should owners of recalled vehicles do?

Models Affected

The vehicles included in the recall are all older vehicles from model years 2002, 2003, and 2004. They include:

  • 2002-03 Jeep Liberty
  • 2002-04 Jeep Grand Cherokees
  • 2003-04 Honda Odyssey
  • 2003 Acura MDX
  • 2003-04 Pontiac Vibe
  • 2003-04 Dodge Viper
  • 2003-04 Toyota Corolla
  • 2003-04 Toyota Matrix
  • 2003-04 Toyota Avalon

There have been about 400 reports of air bags deploying inadvertently in the vehicles subject to the recall. These deployments have caused injuries but have not lead to any deaths. According to a NHTSA press release, the recalled vehicles had been subject to earlier recalls by the vehicles' manufacturers, but the recall repairs failed to fix the problem.

For owners of the approximately 1 million vehicles included in the new recall that are also included in the Takata air bags recall, taking action may be especially important. The Takata air bags may have a defect which causes shrapnel to fly into the passenger compartment upon airbag deployment, making an inadvertent deployment more likely to cause serious injury.

How to Determine Whether Your Car Is Subject to Recall

If you believe your car may require repairs under this or another recall, NHTSA has set up an online search tool that allows consumers to search using a car's Vehicle Identification Number (VIN).

Consumers who do own a car included in the recall should bring in their vehicle to a dealer for repairs immediately, even if those cars had been repaired in previous recalls for the same issue, NHTSA advises.

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