Did a thief beat you to filing your own taxes this year?
You're not alone. More and more Americans are finding that someone has taken over their identity to file a fraudulent tax return in their name and collect the refund check.
In the first half of 2013, 1.6 million taxpayers were hit by tax identity theft, compared to just 271,000 in all of 2010, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration reported. And the IRS paid out $5.8 billion in stolen tax refunds in 2013, according to a study by the General Accountability Office (GAO).
The increased use of electronic filing means that fraudsters are able to file a greater number of returns more quickly and with little or no documentation. This year, the number of suspicious electronic returns has been so great in some states that in February TurboTax, one of the largest tax prep software providers, temporarily suspended processing all state tax returns until it could block users from filing unlinked state returns, which are returns filed without a federal return.
Unfortunately, the number of false returns may not be coming down any time soon. A GAO report just named the IRS's ability to address tax refund fraud and identity theft as one of the government's top weaknesses.
If you've received a notice from the IRS stating that more than one return has been filed in your name, or if you believe your identity has been used fraudulently, here's what to do:
1. Report the Fraud Quickly
Call the IRS Identity Protection Specialized Unit at 800-908-4490 right away so that they can begin the process of verifying your information. You'll also need to fill out an identity theft affidavit, or Form 14039, so that the IRS can place an alert on your account. If your state tax return was filed falsely as well, contact your state revenue agency (for your state's hotline, check out this list).
Also report the theft to the police. While law enforcement is unlikely to investigate, many government agencies and credit bureaus require an official theft report to help you solve the fall-out.
2. Gather Your Proof
"When you call the IRS about the ID theft, have old copies of your tax returns from the past two or three years out. It will move your case faster," says Valrie Chambers, a CPA and Stetson University accounting professor.
By providing additional information that the IRS can check against, you strengthen your case that your return is the legitimate one. For example, an ID thief is unlikely to know that you got divorced two years ago and stopped filing jointly, but this fact can easily be checked by the IRS, giving your filed return more credibility.
While you're searching for those forms, also pull out your driver's license, birth certificate, passport, two recent utility bills, and, if you're married, your marriage certificate. You'll need to mail in copies of all these documents as well as your police report in order for the IRS to verify your tax return and rule the other one fraudulent, says CPA Art Auerbach, who has worked with tax refund theft victims.
3. Pick Up More Protection
Once you report the fraud and fill out the affidavit, the IRS should issue you a personal identification number to provide another layer of security. You'll need to submit this PIN along with your Social Security number when you file any tax form going forward so that the IRS knows to carefully check over your account. As an identity theft victim, you'll get a new PIN every year.
If you live in the tax fraud hotbeds of Florida, Georgia, and D.C., you can apply for a PIN without having been an ID theft victim, thanks to a new IRS initiative. To get the six-digit number, you need to register and verify your identity online. You can sign up on the IRS website.
4. Alert the Credit Bureaus
"If a thief had enough information about you to file a false tax return, he could have also opened new credit card accounts or taken out a loan in your name," says CPA Troy Lewis, chairman of the American Institute of CPAs’ tax executive committee.
Set up free fraud alerts with the three major credit reporting bureaus, Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. These alerts, which last 90 days but can be renewed, warn potential creditors or lenders that you are an identity theft victim and that they must verify your identity before issuing credit.
You can go a step further by placing a credit freeze on your files, which instructs the credit agencies to prevent new creditors from viewing your credit score and report. With a police report, it’s free; without one, it can cost as much $10, depending on your state.
A freeze will keep you from accessing instant credit too. If you need to apply for a loan, you will need to give the agency permission to thaw your data, and in some cases you'll pay a fee to lift the freeze, which can take a few days.
5. Check Your Credit Report
You are entitled to a free copy of your credit report from each of the three agencies. Check them carefully for unauthorized activity. Look at your history as well as recent activity. Just because you were first alerted to the problem through a false tax return does not mean that's where the ID theft started.
If you see errors in your report, such as wrong personal information, accounts you didn’t open or debts you didn’t incur, dispute those errors with each credit agency and the fraud department of the businesses reporting that inaccurate information.
6. Change Your Passwords
In the past, most thieves collected data about a taxpayer and then created an account at a tax preparation software site to file a false return. But Intuit, the parent company of TurboTax, says that in the past 18 months it's seen fraudsters shift to taking over people's existing accounts.
Thieves know that people use the same password at multiple websites. When usernames and passwords are compromised in a data breach, a thief could use them to test for a TurboTax account and file in your name.
If you have an online account at a site like TurboTax, make this password unique from any other passwords you use online. Follow this guide to make it as secure as possible. If you use your tax prep password at your bank or any other site with personal information, change that password too.
7. Be Patient
The IRS says a typical case of ID theft can take 180 days to resolve. And even after you've cleared up this year's tax mess, tax and credit fraud can be a recurring problem.
When a thief beats you to filing, the IRS will flag your legit return and process it manually, scrutinizing every detail to figure out which return is authentic. This means your refund could be delayed for months.
The IRS will always pay you your refund, regardless of whether it already paid it out to a fraudster. If your tax fraud case hasn't been resolved and you're experiencing financial difficulties because of the holdup with your refund, contact the taxpayer advocate service at 877-777-4778.