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UF expert: Eight tips for easier, safer tax filing

With the passage of the new federal tax law, many are now wondering how the law will impact what they see on future tax returns.

However, tax payers still have another year to figure out how the new legislation will affect them, says a tax expert with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

When we go to file tax returns this year — 2018 — those returns actually reflect taxes paid the previous calendar year — 2017 — before the new law took effect, said Jorge Ruiz-Menjivar, assistant professor of family, youth and community sciences.

No matter the year, there are steps you can take now to make filling easier and safer, Ruiz-Menjivar said.

  1. Know the important dates.

The IRS started accepting returns for the 2017 tax year on Jan. 29. The deadline to file returns is April 17. If you file early, keep in mind that that IRS will only begin issuing tax refunds in mid-February, Ruiz-Menjivar said.

  1. Organize and save your records.

“If you’re itemizing, you’ll need receipts, for instance, for those charitable contributions and medical expenses,” Ruiz-Menjivar explained.

After you file your return, make sure you save a copy — paper or digital — in a safe place. It’s recommended that you keep tax records for at least the past 10 years, Ruiz-Menjivar said.

  1. Protect your identity.

“Tax identity theft occurs when someone files a tax return with a stolen social security number,” Ruiz-Menjivar said. “Often tax payers aren’t aware that they’ve been a victim of tax identity theft until they go to file their taxes and are notified by the IRS that someone has already filed a return with the same social security number.”

You can keep your tax identity secure with these tips:

  • Keep your social security card in a safe place. There is no reason to keep your card on your person, such as in a bag or wallet, where it can be easily stolen.
  • Keep any documents with your social security number on them, including tax records, in a safe place.
  • If an email or computer file looks suspicious, don’t open or download it.
  1. File electronically.

Filing online has several advantages, including faster turn-around on your tax refund, Ruiz-Menjivar said. Filing online is also more secure, though make sure your computer’s antivirus software is up to date.

  1. Spot scams.

If there is an issue with your tax return, the IRS will send you a letter in the regular mail. If someone contacts you by phone, email or social media claiming to be from the IRS, you should be suspicious, said Ruiz-Menjivar.

The IRS will also never ask for any personal information, such as your social security number. If someone does request that information, that’s a big red flag, he said.

This tax season, scammers may also start presenting themselves as experts on the new tax law, Ruiz-Menjivar said.

“If you need to consult any information about the new law, it will be through IRS.gov. That’s where you are going to find the most up-to-date information,” he said.

  1. If you think you’ve been a victim of identity theft, safeguard yourself against future fraud.

If you think your identity has been stolen, follow these three steps, Ruiz-Menjivar said.

  • File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.
  • Contact credit agencies to place a fraud alert, which puts the agencies on high alert for any further suspicious activity.
  • Contact your financial institutions and let them know you may have been a victim.
  1. Take advantage of free tax help.

UF/IFAS Extension runs IRS-certified Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) sites in more than a dozen counties in north Florida, where trained agents offer free tax help for qualifying low-income tax payers, Ruiz-Menjivar said.

  1. Save all or part of your refund.

Tax refunds are an opportunity to start an emergency fund for those unexpected expenses, Ruiz-Menjivar said.

Saving even part of your refund can be one way of making saving a habit, he said.

For example, if you put aside $100 each month toward an emergency fund, by the end of the year, you will have saved $1,200, which can serve as a cushion for financial shocks, he said.

During the week of Feb. 26 to March 3, Floridians can pledge to start saving toward an emergency fund or other financial goals through the Florida Saves Pledge at floridasaves.org.

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The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS works to bring science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents. Visit the UF/IFAS web site at ifas.ufl.edu and follow us on social media at @UF_IFAS.

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