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.
How tax fraud victims are targeted
Phone and Email Scams
The most obvious way to protect yourself against scammers is to never give out your personal information to someone you don’t know, especially over the phone. If someone from the “IRS” is attempting to contact you over the phone or by email and asks for your social security or card information, don’t give it to them. The IRS almost never contacts via phone, instead preferring to send notices via mail. Even if you do receive a call from the IRS, they won’t ask for your social security number – they already have that information. The IRS will never leave you threatening voicemails about any possible tax balance or fraud regarding your account and will never ask for you to provide personal information or payments over the phone. If you feel uncomfortable about the validity of a call, hang up and call the IRS yourself – that way you know if what they’re telling you is true.
Be wary of scammers who will pose as a tax preparer and then rip off customers through refund fraud or identity theft. These phony accountants will tell you that they can get you a large tax refund and typically prey on low-income and non-English speaking taxpayers.
Even if you go to a legitimate tax preparer, your information can still be exposed if there is a data breach. To avoid this happening – and being left vulnerable – ask your tax preparer what more you can do to protect your information in case of a breach.
Make sure to protect your social security number at all costs. Identity thieves will attempt to steal this information in order to steal not only your identity but your tax refund too. As long as you notify the IRS that your information has been compromised and your refund has been stolen, the IRS will work with you to provide your refund. However, it will take extensive time and paperwork to prove that your information was stolen.
Medical Identity theft
Financial fraud such as a stolen credit card can be frustrating but can be quickly resolved since it’s easier to detect, and often doesn’t have significant long-term financial impacts. Medical identity fraud, on the other hand, can cost a victim tens of thousands of dollars and be notoriously difficult to resolve. Because of advancements in electronic communication and collaboration in the healthcare industry, personal health information (PHI) is more exposed and accessible. At the same time, this doesn’t always mean that your health provider is on the same page with your insurer. PHI is rarely tracked across multiple networks and this gap can make stealing and using it feasible.
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. Never send emails with personally identifiable information (PII) attached.
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 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or call 1-800-366-4484. You can also sign up for Scam Alerts from the FTC to stay abreast of all the dirty tricks scammers are currently using.
If You’ve Been Victimized by Tax Return 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.