<p>Every April, scammers and fraudsters get ready to pounce on anxious citizens trying to navigate arcane tax rules.</p><p>Bogus emails arrive, pretending to be from the IRS. Shady tax-preparation software is offered at a discount. Creeps hang around copy centers, waiting to scoop sensitive documents out of the trash. </p> <p>Here are 10 tips to help you avoid these scams and keep your personal information &mdash; and your identity &mdash; safe online as well as offline.</p>

Beware the mailbox

<p>Don't put your tax return in your mailbox at your house.</p> <p>Make sure you take it to the post office or put it in the blue mailbox. </p> <p>"Never put it in your home mailbox with the red flag up, because that's a red flag that says, 'Hey, come get me,'" said Steve Schwartz, executive vice president of consumer services for Intersections, Inc., a provider of consumer and corporate identity-risk management services in Chantilly, Va.</p> <p><a href="">10 Tips to Safely File Taxes Online</a></p>

Fire up the shredder

<p>Shred any documents or work sheets you don't need to document your taxes.</p><p>That means anything that might have personally identifiable information on it, such as your name, your address or your Social Security number. </p> <p>"<a href="">Shred anything you don't need</a> to keep for record purposes like receipts," Schwartz said. "Never toss them in the trash."</p>

Use a lockbox

<p>Lock receipts or other important tax documents in a file cabinet or a fire safe.</p><p>If you do that, no one can get their hands on those papers, Schwartz said.</p> <p><a href="">Clean House! Old Financial Records You Can Toss</a></p>

Screen your accountant

<p>Be sure you're going to a qualified and vetted tax preparer (offline).</p> <p>The big tax-preparation chains are good, but they tend to hire a lot of new people at tax season, so it never hurts to ask for credentials. </p> <p>"Ask if they conduct background checks on their employees," Schwartz said. "But if you're going to a local tax preparer, ask what the company is doing to secure your personal information. Be sure they have a good information-security policy."</p> <p><a href="">How to Avoid the 'Dirty Dozen' Tax Scams</a></p>

The IRS doesn't call

<p>Be aware that the IRS doesn't call or email people to ask for their <a href="">Social Security numbers</a> or bank-account numbers. </p> <p>"The IRS will never send you an email asking you to click on a link or call them," Schwartz said. "If you're going to get audited, you'll get a letter. If someone calls you, never give your information out." </p> <p>However, if you feel that you have to give out information such as your Social Security number, bank-account number, or credit-card number, only do it if you've initiated the telephone call and if you're absolutely sure of the number that you've called, Schwartz said. </p> <p>"Be sure you're calling your bank, the IRS, the local tax collector or the tax-preparer service you're using," he adds.</p>

Be sneaky

<p>Hide the copy of your return on your computer.</p> <p>"Don't put it in a file that says 'John Smith's 2011 Tax Return,'" Schwartz said. "Make it confusing. Put it in a folder that says 'car' or 'house.' Make a bunch of different folder levels and rename the file itself. Because if you do get a nasty piece of software on your computer, you don't want to make it easy for a thief to find this stuff."</p> <p><a href="">How to Secure Your Home, Auto and Smartphone</a></p>

Stick to a known brand

<p>If you prepare your taxes online, be sure to stick with one of the big guys.</p> <p>And that means a reputable company that has good security in place, according to Schwartz. </p> <p>"Be sure to look for a secure URL, the 'https,' in the address bar. And be sure you're not misspelling the Web address." </p> <p>Often, fraudsters will set up URLs that are slight misspellings of a Web address, such as instead of They use such phony sites to steal your personal information, Schwartz said.</p> <p><a href="" target="_blank">10 Best Online Tax Software Products</a></p>

Clean up your computer

<p>Be sure your computer is free of malware, computer viruses and spyware.</p> <p>And be sure all your software, including your <a href="" target="_blank">anti-virus software</a>, is up-to-date. </p> <p>"But if you get an ad on your computer that says 'Click here for a free scan,' those are probably not what you want to install," Schwartz said. "Stick with Norton Symantec, McAfee, ZoneAlarm, companies with well-known reputations and names. However, even if you get a pop-up for these reputable companies, don't click on it. Go to the address bar and type in the [company's] URL."</p>

Pay online

<p>If you owe money to the IRS, it's safer to pay online.</p> <p>"Even if you put the check in the mail, you still never know what's going to happen to it," Schwartz said. "It's a piece of paper floating around."</p> <p><a href="">9 Ways to Stay Safe Using PayPal</a></p>

Write out 'Internal Revenue Service'

<p>If you do write a check, make it out to the Internal Revenue Service.</p> <p>It's harder for someone to cash a check if you write it out to the Internal Revenue Service, according to Schwartz. </p> <p>"It's easier to fake an endorsement if it just says 'IRS,' but no one at a bank is going to cash a check that's made out to the 'Internal Revenue Service,'" he said. <p><a href="" target="_blank">Your Guide to Online Tax Software</a></p>

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