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Tax ID theft skyrockets; thieves feasting on a refund bonanza

They steal your identity and go on a spree with Uncle Sam's debit card

By

If it can happen to a slain police officer, it can happen to anyone.

Taxpayers are having hundreds of millions -- or perhaps billions -- of dollars in tax refunds swiped by crooks who file fraudulent tax returns using the victim's Social Security number, then pocket the refunds. The victim has no idea the fraud has occurred until they try to file their own return and it bounces back.

"Nobody's immune from this crime," says Sal Augeri, a police detective in Tampa, Fla. The Tampa Bay area, along with South Florida, appear to be ground zero for the crime. But Florida is by no means alone. Just in the last week of January, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), working with various other agencies, cracked down on suspected fraudsters in 23 states from New York to California.

Tax ID theft skyrockets; thieves feasting on a refund bonanza

The situation is so bad, Augeri testified March 20 before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Fiscal Responsibility and Economic Growth about what he's observed. During the hearing it was revealed one of the tax fraud victims was Tampa police officer David Curtis, who was gunned down in 2010. His widow is still struggling to get the tax refund.

"It's a growing problem that undermines confidence in the tax system," says Mark Steber, chief tax officer at Jackson Hewitt Tax Service and chairman of the IRS Electronic Tax Administration Advisory Committee.

Problem runs into billions
While it's impossible to get a handle on exactly how much money is swiped, in the Tampa Bay area alone Augeri estimates it totals up to $1 billion and could be as high as $10 billion nationwide.

   HOW THE SCHEME WORKS

While the methods employed can vary, in Tampa the scheme generally works like this:

  • Fraudsters find willing accomplices who have access to Social Security numbers at places such as doctor's offices and insurance companies or from credit card applications. The accomplices may steal 100 names and Social Security numbers, and get paid $1,000.
  • The thieves use that information to file a fake tax return in your name -- usually beating you to the punch and filing early in the tax season.
  • They take the refund -- which may come in the form of a check or prepaid debit card -- and bring it to a business they're in cahoots with.
  • The business cashes the check or cashes out the debit card, gives the fraudster a cut, then keeps the rest, laundering it through the business.

At the IRS, the agency caught 262,000 fraudulent returns in 2011, seeking $1.45 billion in refunds, an agency spokesman says. That's an 81 percent increase since 2010, when the agency identified 49,000 suspicious returns, seeking $247 million in refunds. But if the fraudulent return isn't caught and slips through the system, the burden will fall on you to prove your identity, and the problem can take months to resolve, the IRS representative admits. Ultimately, you'll receive your refund, with the federal government coughing up the cash.

No one can pinpoint precisely why the crime is booming, but Steber says, "identity theft goes hand in hand with tax fraud."

A Federal Trade Commission report says that of the 1.8 million complaints it received in 2011, 15 percent involved identity theft. Of those, almost one-quarter were related to tax or wage fraud.

Criminals also are drawn to it because it's less risky than many other types of crime, Augeri says. Rather than trying to sell a kilo of cocaine for a few thousand dollars, and running the risk of being shot by other bad guys, the crooks can sit in their living room and crank out returns, netting tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars. "It's more lucrative and the punishment isn't as bad."

The 'TurboTax' scheme
On the street, it's a scheme known as "TurboTax" and evidence of the fraud can be found when police show up at all kinds of cases, Augeri says. In one recent suicide, the dead teen was found with two prepaid tax refund debit cards in his pocket. 

The problem started popping up in Tampa in the second half of 2010. Police would pull over vehicles and find ledgers filled with Social Security numbers and stacks of prepaid debit cards.

The identity theft landscape is constantly changing, as identity thieves continue to create new ways of stealing personal information and using it for their gain.

-- Steven T. Miller
   IRS deputy commissioner

The U.S. Postal Service also started noticing stacks of IRS mailings going to certain addresses, and the names on the envelopes didn't correspond with the names of the residents, Augeri says. That led postal inspectors to confiscate stacks of refund checks and debit cards.

"Over the past few years, the IRS has seen a significant increase in refund fraud schemes in general and schemes involving identity theft in particular," said Steven T. Miller, deputy commissioner for services and enforcement for the agency, in written testimony to the Senate committee. "Fighting identity theft will be an ongoing battle for the IRS and one where we cannot afford to let up. The identity theft landscape is constantly changing, as identity thieves continue to create new ways of stealing personal information and using it for their gain."

Steps to prevent tax ID fraud
While there's no way to guarantee you won't fall victim to tax return fraud, you can take steps to try to prevent it.

Rather than joining the crush of millions of Americans filing at the last minute, Steber recommends submitting your tax return early. "You effectively lock out people from trying to file your (fraudulent) return."

If you try to e-file your return and it bounces back, you'll have to file a paper return, and the IRS spokesman recommends you immediately fill out an Identity Theft Affidavit and submit it to the agency so it flags your account.

The agency has begun issuing special identification numbers called Identity Protection PINs to taxpayers whose identities are known to have been stolen. That prevents others from using their identities. As of mid-March, the agency had issued more than 250,000 such IP Pins in the 2011 filing season, says Miller.

Don't let your SSN out
If you successfully file your return, it's crucial that you keep the information stored somewhere safe. Steber says he often stops at various tax preparers' offices while traveling, and he'll invariably finds taxpayers have tossed their completed returns in the dumpster. That's like handing fraudsters a treasure trove of personal information.

You also need make sure to keep your Social Security number, as well as those of family members, safe and secure. Often the IRS will give less scrutiny to the Social Security number of a deceased person or a child than to an adult filing a return, and it's not unusual for fraudsters to scour obituaries and birth announcements, trying to obtain information, Steber says. The IRS's Miller says that so far, 66,000 returns for the 2011 filing year have been stopped for review because they appear to come from recently deceased taxpayers who have no filing requirements

Steber cautions consumers to guard their Social Security numbers at all costs. "You should protect that information like you would a valuable piece of jewelry or other asset."

See related: 9 tips for preventing tax ID fraud,  How to prevent ID theft after death, Credit cards and your taxes

Published: March 26, 2012


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Updated: 09-26-2016


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