Tax season is also tax refund identity theft season. As you work this time of year to gather documents and prepare your legitimate tax return, identity thieves, too, are at work—trying to beat you and other filers to the punch.
What is tax-related identity theft
Simply put, tax-related identity theft (or tax refund identity theft) is when someone uses a stolen Social Security number to file a tax return. Even if you actually owe taxes, the fraudsters don’t care. They can still use your Social Security number and made-up income data on fraudulent tax forms to try to trick the Internal Revenue Service into handing over a refund. And despite IRS efforts to crack down in recent years, it still happens. There were a reported 100,000 cases in tax year 2017, down from 297,000 in 2015.
Warnings signs of tax-related identity theft
If you are a victim of tax-related identity theft, you’ll likely hear about it from either the IRS or the tax preparer that prepared your return. There are no obvious early warning signs of tax-related identity theft, but if you know that your Social Security number has been stolen or, perhaps, exposed in a data breach, then it’s possible a criminal could use it to file a fraudulent return.
The IRS says it, or your preparer, may notify you if:
- More than one tax return was filed using your Social Security number
- You owe additional tax or a refund offset, or have had collection actions taken against you for a year you did not file a tax return
- IRS records indicate you received wages or income from an unknown employer
If you suspect you’re an identity theft victim, continue to pay your taxes and file your tax return. You may have to file a paper return.
Working with the IRS if you’re a victim of tax-related identity theft
If you know or think you’re a victim of tax-related identity theft, here’s what the IRS recommends you do:
- Respond immediately to any IRS notice; call the number provided.
- Complete IRS Form 14039, Identity Theft Affidavit, if your efiled return rejects because of a duplicate filing under your SSN or you are instructed to do so. Use the fillable form at IRS.gov, print, then attach the form to your return and mail according to instructions.
These steps are in addition to the Federal Trade Commission’s recommendations for all identity theft victims. The FTC’s guidance for ID theft victims are to:
- File a complaint with the FTC at identitytheft.gov.
- Contact one of the three major credit bureaus to place a “fraud alert” on your credit records. The bureau you notify is required to contact the other two agencies and ask them to place fraud alerts on your records
- Equifax, www.Equifax.com, 800-525-6285
- Experian, www.Experian.com, 888-397-3742
- TransUnion, www.TransUnion.com, 800-680-7289
- Contact your financial institutions, and close any financial or credit accounts opened without your permission or tampered with by identity thieves.
How long will tax-related identity theft delay my refund?
This is the big question: How long will the criminal’s actions delay you in receiving your legitimate tax refund? The IRS says how quickly it resolves identity theft cases depends upon the volume of work and the complexity of the cases. In 2016, one tax-related identity theft victim said the IRS told him it would take six months to receive his refund. And the IRS website says cases are resolved, generally, within 120 days, but complex cases may take 180 days or longer.
The IRS says each victim’s experience will vary, depending on whether you tell the IRS you may be a tax-related identity theft victim, or the IRS tells you it has a suspicious tax return with your personal information on it.