Filing taxes may not be the most pleasant experience. But, it could be made worse if an identity thief gets away with your return check.

(Tim Boyle, Getty Images News)

Tax-related identity theft is a growing problem in New Jersey and across the country. But, there are steps you can take to protect yourself.

"For an identity thief, tax-related identity theft is one of the easiest crimes to commit. All they really need is a name and a social security number. Then they doctor up some W-2 forms and file them," said Adam Levin, chairman and co-founder Identity Theft 911. "The secret for the thief is that they file early and the reality is that so many people in this country file their tax returns late. Nearly 25 percent of taxpayers file in the last two weeks before April 15 and another seven percent get an extension and wait until October. This gives the thief a lot of runway to get in there, get the refund and disappear by the time it would be time for a person to actually get their refund."

How can a thief gain access to your information? If you forget to shred documents that have personal identification, thieves will go dumpster-diving to get pertinent information. They will also gain access to your mailbox and take the mail that is labeled Important Tax Information Enclosed. That includes W-2 forms, 1098s and 1099s. Thieves will make copies, reseal the envelope and return it to your mailbox.

Levin recommends you take the following steps to prevent identity thieves from stealing your tax return:

  • File early.
  • E-file.
  • If you're using a new tax preparer, check with Internal Revenue Service Office of Professional Responsibility or the State Division of Consumer Affairs to make sure the person is legitimate.
  • If filing online, don't save information in your computer.  Save it on an encrypted thumbdrive.
  • Guard your social security number.

"When you e-file, you get a receipt that means it's in and in process," Levin said. "You should also be very protective of your social security number especially in light of the Target breach and several other retailers. Because of some of these breaches, the thieves have names and email addresses. You just have to be more on guard. The key thing to remember is the IRS will never send you an email or call you on the phone.  They only use traditional snail mail."