Tax identity theft is an increasingly common scam. It involves thieves filing bogus returns and claiming legitimate taxpayers’ refunds. Here’s how to help avoid it.

If you’re like many Americans, you might not even start thinking about filing your tax returns until close to this year’s deadline: April 18. You might even try to file for an extension so you don’t have to send your return to the IRS until October 16.

But there’s another important date you should remember: January 23. That’s the date this year the IRS will begin accepting 2016 returns, and filing as close to that date as possible could help protect you from tax identity theft.

Why Early Filing Helps
In a common tax scam, thieves use the victims’ personal information to file fraudulent tax returns electronically and claim false refunds. This is typically done early in the tax filing season. When the real taxpayers files, they will be notified that they are attempting to file duplicate returns.

A victim typically notices the fraud after he or she files a tax return and is informed by the IRS that the return has been rejected because one with the same Social Security number has been filed for the same tax year. Then IRS must then determine who the legitimate taxpayer is.

Tax identity theft can cause major headaches to the real taxpayer and significantly delay any legitimate refunds. But if you file first, it will be the tax return filed by a thief that will be rejected — not yours.

Another Important Date to Remember
Of course, before you file a tax return, you’ll need to have your all W-2s and 1099s. So another date to be aware of this year is January 31, which is the deadline for employers to issue 2016 W-2s to employees and, generally, for companies to issue 1099s to recipients of any 2016 interest, dividend, or reportable miscellaneous income payments.

Delays for Some Refunds
The IRS reminded taxpayers claiming the earned income tax credit or the additional child tax credit to expect a longer wait for their refunds. A new law passed in 2015 which requires the IRS to hold refunds on tax returns claiming these credits until at least February 15.

An Additional Benefits
Contact an advisor you have questions about tax identity theft or would like help filing your 2016 return early. If you’ll be getting a refund, an added bonus of filing early is that you’ll be able to enjoy your refund sooner.