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Frank Gray

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Early filing thwarts chances of ID theft

The deadline for filing your tax return is three months away, but there might be people out there preparing to file a tax return in your name right now.

It might come as a surprise to know that someone who has nothing more than your name and Social Security number can file a bogus tax return in your name and have a fat refund sent directly to them.

We’ve written about people from the area who have had this happen to them. They didn’t find out until they filed their own legitimate returns and received, instead of a refund, a letter from the IRS saying they had already filed their return.

There was a time when, if that happened, it could take up to a year to get it sorted out and get your refund.

I spoke to Luis Garcia, a spokesman for the IRS for Indiana, about how people can protect themselves and maybe even beat the crooks at their own game.

One secret is to file early.

Crooks, who have been known to file hundreds of bogus returns under hundreds of different names and have the refunds mailed to the same address, like to file their fraudulent returns early.

“They try to beat you to the punch,” Garcia said. If they get to the IRS first they can get a refund before you file.

One key way to protect yourself is to keep certain information, such as your Social Security number, secret, Garcia said. Don’t carry your card in your wallet and don’t give you number to businesses.

One local victim of identity theft, who was victimized by someone in Florida, said the only place in Florida he ever gave his Social Security number to was a medical clinic he had to go to unexpectedly. That man is convinced that is where the identity thieves got the information.

For now, Garcia said, the IRS is putting tax-related ID theft at the top of its priority list.

These thieves have been fleecing the government of billions of dollars a year, but Garcia said the bigger issue is the pain that ID theft is causing innocent taxpayers.

In Indiana, Garcia said, 81 percent of all filers get refunds, and the average refund is $2,500. The IRS knows that these individuals are counting on that money to pay bills and meet expenses, “So the bigger issue is the victims. They are the top priority.”

The good news is that the IRS has been catching a lot more of these identity thieves. About six times as many thieves as three years ago have been indicted, according to an IRS website; about five times as many crooks have been sentenced. The biggest schemes have netted 12 to 25 years in federal prison.

The sad news, though, is that even though the IRS has greatly increased the number of people investigating ID theft, a refund can be delayed by up to 180 days for victims.

Another scam that has been going on for a couple of months involves people posing as IRS agents calling people and claiming they owe back taxes and demanding personal information such as Social Security numbers.

They use spoofing software to make it appear they are really calling from the IRS or local police departments and get aggressive and threatening.

The IRS doesn’t operate that way, Garcia says. For example, they’ll never tell you to go to a local store and buy a Green Dot Card to pay off a tax debt, Garcia said.

People who get such calls should call the IRS at 1-800-829-1040 to report it.

And consider filing early.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at fgray@jg.net. You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.

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