NEW YORK (MainStreet) — The theft of consumers’ tax IDs is growing and actually became the most common form of ID theft in 2014, said the Federal Trade Commission.

More criminals are also gravitating to impersonating IRS officials as the number of complaints rose by almost 24 times in 2014 compared to 2013, the FTC said. These statistics are compiled by the FTC and include complaints received by the FTC and other federal, state and local law enforcement and consumer protection agencies.

“We’ve seen an explosion of complaints about callers who claim to be IRS agents – but are not,” said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “IRS employees won’t call out of the blue and threaten to have you arrested or demand specific methods of payment.”

Scammers steal a consumer’s tax ID by filing a fraudulent tax return and using a consumer’s social security number in order to receive a refund. There are countless online scammers waiting to defraud consumers of their hard-earned cash.

Impostor Revenue Service

Other scammers pretending to be an IRS official call a consumer by phone and demand that the consumer owes the IRS money. The scammer then suggests to the consumer that he pay the IRS by wiring money or loading money on a pre-paid debit card. These callers often threaten arrest or legal action, and consumers may fall for their tactics, because the calls may appear to originate from Washington, D.C. phone numbers. Since the scammers often know a consumer’s full or partial Social Security number, individuals feel they are credible.

Fighting back against these scammers can be accomplished even though these cons are prevalent. One of the best ways to avoid a scam is to file your taxes early before a scammer attempts to file your return in order to receive a fraudulent refund.

If a consumer is a victim of tax identity theft, he should contact the FTC to file a complaint immediately, either online or by phone at 1-877-FTC-HELP and should also contact the IRS at 1-800-908-4490.

The IRS never calls a consumer about unpaid taxes or penalties and typically contacts consumers via a letter. If you receive a call from an individual purporting to be from the IRS, do not send money and report the scam to the FTC and to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration at tigta.gov. The IRS also does not email or text taxpayers, so ignore those messages imploring you to send personal details, because they are fraudulent, said Paige Hanson, an educational programs manager for LifeLock, an identity theft protection company based in Tempe, Ariz. Once the money is sent to the scammer, it will be impossible to retrieve.

Consumers should be careful when they are filing their taxes online, just like when they are paying bills. It is best to avoid filing online while using an unsecured public Wi-Fi connection at a coffee shop or in a location where others have a clear view of the personal information being entered into the computer, said Bruce McClary, spokesperson for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit.

“Online tax filing services you use should be ones that are trusted and familiar,” he said. “Scammers might register URLs that are based on misspellings of legitimate websites, so it is important to carefully check the spelling of a published link or one that is entered manually. Make sure that the tax preparation website is secure before entering any personal data.”

Protect your Social Security number, and do not disclose it unless it is necessary. Avoid using your Social Security number as an account identifier when you are using medical services, said Stephen Cobb, senior security researcher for ESET, a San Diego-based IT security firm.

“Your Social is the prime ingredient for tax identity fraud, and you don’t want to make it easy for the bad guys by being careless with this information,” he said.

Consumers can order their IRS transcript, which allows them to see what the IRS has on record for you in terms of tax payments and refunds.

“Contrary to popular myth, the IRS does not play poker with your data, and they are quite happy to share with you the data they are holding that relates to you,” Cobb said.

Clear and Present Danger

If you are self-employed and pay quarterly taxes, you are not immune from having your identity stolen. A criminal can use your bank account and routing numbers to make an estimated tax payment to the IRS on behalf of a stolen name and Social Security number and then claim a refund which the IRS pays to an account under the control of the scammer, Cobb said.

“Ask your bank about an ACH debit block,” he said. “Putting an ACH debit block on your account prevents crooks taking money with this type of transfer; however, it could prevent you executing legitimate online or over-the-phone electronic payments.”

Taxpayers are filing online even more now and a survey from Experian’s ProtectMyID, a Costa Mesa, Calif. provider of identity theft detection and protection, showed that 81% of tax filers submitted their taxes online last year, up from 73%. Most individuals who prepared and filed their own taxes online used secure networks and computers with up-to-date antivirus protection.

Research any paid preparer or tax-preparation software even though there is free help available online. Scammers have already begun setting up fake websites and software downloads designed solely to bilk people out of their personal information during tax time.

“Don't provide personal information over the phone, through the mail or online unless you've initiated the contact or you are sure you know who you are dealing with,” said Anabel Marquez, media relations specialist with the IRS. “We also recommend people check their credit report regularly, protect their personal computers by using firewalls and anti-spam/virus software and change passwords for Internet accounts.”

--Written by Ellen Chang for MainStreet