May 29, 2015

You’ve always filed your income tax returns electronically in the past. Your returns were less vulnerable to calculation errors and you received your tax refund much quicker than you did filing paper returns. But this year, when you attempted to e-file your federal income tax return, the IRS rejected your submission, issuing a statement that a previously filed return using your Social Security number was already on file. How could such a thing happen?

Welcome to the world of identity theft, tax fraud style. Scammers filing falsified returns reap millions for their fraudulent efforts, spending the money from their ill-gotten gains long before the IRS – or their victims – become privy to the fact that a crime has even been committed. Many victims only learn that they’ve been targeted after receiving an audit notice from the IRS. In the meantime, fines, fees, penalties and interest from tax return fraud have accumulated, – and it’s largely up to victims to straighten out the mess.

tax fraud“Drops” and Bling

Ironically, the same e-filing system that cuts weeks from the time needed to process federal income tax returns and refunds also facilitates tax return fraud. Known as “drops” in many urban areas, this form of tax fraud identity theft involves using victims’ Social Security numbers, to file fraudulent electronic income tax returns claiming substantial tax refunds. This eliminates the need to attempt to forge victims’ physical signatures on paper tax returns.

Another ironic consequence of the dramatic rise in “drops” is a corresponding decline in street crime, particularly the drug trade. Many small-time drug dealers and even large volume drug traders find that executing “drops” is less legally hazardous, not to mention more lucrative. Another ironic consequence is a reduction in demand for assistance from food banks or even government food stamps: tax fraud artists don’t need the help. In fact, the expensive cars with pricey rims, the fancy clothes and the other “bling” flaunted by many tax fraud artists, fuels resentment amongst honest residents in low-income neighborhoods who struggle to make ends meet on a daily basis.

How Victims are Targeted

Have you ever provided your Social Security number to anyone? Then you are potentially a target for tax fraud identity theft. Many legitimate transactions: opening a bank account, applying for a mortgage or filling out a job application require individuals to supply Social Security Numbers. Unscrupulous employees harvest Social Security numbers from such transactions, which they use themselves or sell to the highest bidder. Tax fraud artists also comb death notices, create Trojan viruses or phishing email attempts or simply rummage through trash for the information they seek.

Funds from these fraudulent returns are commonly issued on proprietary debit cards issued by companies providing e-filing services, making it easy for fraud artists to access their ill-gotten gains. Paperwork backlogs and personnel shortages within the IRS exacerbate the issue. Especially during the busy tax filing season, the emphasis of the IRS is on processing returns and refunds as quickly as possible. By the time the IRS initiates inquires on questionable returns, money from fraudulently obtained refunds has often long since been spent.

Protecting Yourself from Tax Return Fraud

The best way to protect yourself from tax return fraud is by limiting access to your Social Security number. A bit of vigilance will protect you from many fraudulent attempts to obtain your Social Security number. Don’t carry your Social Security card unless you need to provide a copy for a job application or a similar purpose. Protect sensitive information on your computer by maintaining up-to-date antivirus and antispyware software and firewalls.

Think twice before responding to unsolicited “pre-approved credit” offers received online or in the mail. Never supply sensitive personal or financial information unless you have initiated the transaction or conversation – or unless you are 110 percent sure that the person on the phone or the website you’re dealing with is the real deal. If you receive questionable communication requesting (or demanding) sensitive financial or personal information from a company you’ve done business with, contact the company directly to check verify that it is indeed them requesting the information.

If you receive unsolicited email, social media or text messages claiming to be from the IRS, there is a 100 percent probability that they’re fake. The IRS only initiates communications with taxpayers by regular mail or by telephone – period. Do not respond directly to such communications in any way. Instead, report suspicious IRS-related communications to phishing@irs.gov or call 1-800-366-4484.

If You’ve Been Victimized by Tax Return Fraudtax_fraud

The first indication that you’ve been victimized by tax return fraud often comes in the form of an inquiry from the IRS about discrepancies in your return. You may be questioned about returns issued in your name which you never received or wages earned for companies you’ve never even heard of. You may also be assessed additional taxes or tax return offsets for years that you didn’t file a tax return at all. Another telltale sign is a notice from the IRS that multiple returns have been filed during a single year using your Social Security number.

Once you become aware that you’ve been targeted by tax return fraud, you must act quickly to limit the damage. File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission and a police report with your local law enforcement agency. Contact one or more of the three major credit reporting bureaus (TransUnion, Equifax or Experian) to have a fraud alert placed on your credit report. Close any credit card or other accounts that have been compromised or opened without your knowledge. Also, check your earnings report annually with the Social Security Administration to endure that there is no fraudulent activity.

If your federal tax refund has been stolen or you have other unresolved tax-fraud related issues, contact the IRS Identity Protection Specialized Unit at (800)908-4490. You can protect yourself from further tax return fraud attempts by filing “Form 14039 – Identity Theft Affidavit” with the IRS. It’s likely that you’ll be required to file a paper return for the present tax year and it may take months to resolve your case, as well as restore any refunds to which you’re rightfully entitled.

However, the IRS will issue you a unique IP PIN that will replace your Social Security number and which will allow you to e-file future federal income tax returns safely. Do not use this IP PIN for any other reason – including state income tax returns.