Tax identity theft a growing problem

SEATTLE -- They came on foot and in cars, too. They were caught on surveillance video -- thieves prowling mailboxes in the Highland Park area of West Seattle, looking for the information necessary to steal identities.

"Tax season is considered the Super Bowl for scammers.  I mean this is prime time right now for these con artists out there,” Better Business Bureau spokesman David Quinlan said.

Everything necessary to steal someone's identity can easily be found in the mail this time of year.

"All of your tax documents.  They have your Social Security number, your bank account information.  They have your address, your name, everything,” Quinlan said.

Brandon Barnhart knows what it's like to be a victim of mail and identity thieves even though he did everything he could to protect himself.

"It was shocking. Basically, I didn't know how it could have gotten stolen. You know, I always get my mail every day, but somehow between 8 and 5 somebody came along and got that piece. I felt victimized,” Barnhart said.

Armed with your name and Social Security number, thieves can target your tax return.

Investigators with the IRS say, along with small-time thieves, armed gangs and violent criminals now turn to tax fraud to make a quick buck by filing electronic returns.

"People will be receiving 1099s, 1098s and W2 forms in the mail and fortunately when they come they come in envelopes that scream; TAX INFORMATION ENCLOSED, which is like a neon sign.  It's like a magnet for identity thieves,” founder & CEO Adam Levine said.

Police say criminals will get that information anyway they can; from your snail mail box or even your email box.

"Email is inherently insecure and, if someone hacks into your email system, they are going to see your data,” Levine said.

Remember, the IRS never communicates via email or telephone.

So if you're contacted in either way by someone claiming to be the IRS, hit delete or hang up the phone.

There are steps you can take to protect yourselves.

First file tax returns as early as possible.

When it arrives, secure your W-2 form to make sure it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.

Use a secure Internet connection when filing electronically or mail your tax return directly from the post office instead of from your home.

You can't avoid taxes, but you can hopefully avoid becoming a victim.