The IRS expects to receive more than 150 million individual income tax returns this year and issue billions of dollars in refunds. That huge pool of refunds drives scam artists and criminals to steal taxpayer identities and claim fraudulent refunds. The IRS has many protections in place to discover false returns and refund claims, but taxpayers still need to be proactive.
Tax-related identity theft
Tax-related identity theft most often occurs when a criminal uses a stolen Social Security number to file a tax return claiming a fraudulent refund. Often, criminals will claim bogus tax credits or deductions to generate large refunds. Fraud is particularly prevalent for the earned income tax credit, residential energy credits and others. In many cases, the victims of tax-related identity theft only discover the crime when they file their genuine return with the IRS. By this time, all the taxpayer can do is to take steps to prevent a recurrence.
However, there are steps taxpayers can take to reduce the likelihood of being a victim of tax-related identity theft. Personal information must be kept confidential. This includes not only an individual’s Social Security number (SSN) but other identification materials, such as bank and other financial account numbers, credit and debit card numbers, and medical and insurance information. Paper documents, including old tax returns if they were filed on paper returns, should be kept in a secure location. Documents that are no longer needed should be shredded.
Online information is especially vulnerable and should be protected by using firewalls, anti-spam/virus software, updating security patches and changing passwords frequently. Identity thieves are very skilled at leveraging whatever information they can find online to create a false tax return.
Criminals do not only steal a taxpayer’s identity from documents. Telephone tax scams soared during the 2015 filing season. Indeed, a government watchdog reported that this year was a record high for telephone tax scams. These criminals impersonate IRS officials and threaten legal action unless a taxpayer immediately pays a purported tax debt. These criminals sound convincing when they call and use fake names and bogus IRS identification badge numbers. One sure sign of a telephone tax scam is a demand for payment by prepaid debit card. The IRS never demands payment using a prepaid debit card, nor does the IRS ask for credit or debit card numbers over the phone.
The IRS, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) and the Federal Tax Commission (FTC) are investigating telephone tax fraud. Individuals who have received these types of calls should alert the IRS, TIGTA or the FTC, even if they have not been victimized.
Tax-related identity theft is a time consuming process for victims so the best defense is a good offense. Please contact our office if you have any questions about tax-related identity theft.