Even though reports of tax-related identity theft have declined markedly in recent years, the Internal Revenue Service warns that this practice is still widespread and remains serious enough to earn a spot on the agency’s annual “Dirty Dozen” list of tax scams.
The Dirty Dozen is compiled each year by the IRS and outlines a variety of common scams taxpayers may encounter any time during the year. Many of these cons peak during filing season as people prepare their tax returns or hire tax professionals.
Tax-related identity theft occurs when someone uses a stolen Social Security number or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) to file a fraudulent tax return claiming a refund.
The IRS, the states and the tax industry began working together in 2015 as the Security Summit to fight tax-related identity theft. Security Summit partners enacted a series of safeguards that are making inroads against identity thieves.
For example, the number of taxpayers reporting themselves as identity theft victims declined by 40 percent in 2017 from 2016. In 2017, the IRS received 242,000 reports from taxpayers compared to 401,000 in 2016. This was the second year in a row this number fell, dropping from 677,000 victim reports in 2015. Overall, the number of identity theft victims has fallen nearly 65 percent between 2015 and 2017.
Thieves are using phishing and other schemes to steal client data from tax professionals. Then, using that data, they file fraudulent tax returns and use the taxpayers' real bank accounts to deposit erroneous tax refunds. Finally, the thieves, posing as IRS or other law enforcement, call attention to the error and ask taxpayers to return the money to them.
Why are thieves going to such lengths? They know it is more difficult to identify and halt fraudulent tax returns when they are using real client data such as income, dependents, credits, and deductions. Additionally, it's harder to track when criminals can find alternative ways to get the fraudulent refunds delivered to themselves rather than the real taxpayers - no more stealing checks out of mailboxes.
If this happens to you - and you do have a bogus tax refund in your bank account - here's how the IRS wants you to return the funds and avoid being scammed:
With tax season in full swing, identity-theft-related tax fraud has become a hot topic. While taking steps to protect yourself from identity theft is always smart, it's important that you don't get too caught up in the hype. I've received a number of emails from panicked taxpayers who, after watching various news spots on the dangers of identity-theft-related tax fraud, are feeling confused and pressured. Unfortunately, some of the advice making the rounds - while certainly sensational - isn't very practical. Here are five things you need to know about identity theft and tax returns:
Not all data breaches or computer hacks result in identity-theft-related tax fraud.
Filing early doesn't prevent identity theft.
Rushing to file an incomplete return isn't a good strategy.
Not every taxpayer needs an IP PIN.
An IP PIN isn't a one-time fix.