The nation’s pioneering consumer advocacy organization is today issuing a warning for consumers about identity thieves filing fraudulent claims in order to steal legitimate taxpayer refunds, as well as a new change in tax law going into effect this year that may give scammers a new angle for preying on tax-filing victims.
From 2011-2014, identity thieves claimed $23 billion in fraudulent tax refunds—money diverted from legitimate taxpayers by criminals. In 2015, thieves used fraudulent tax and wage information to defraud nearly a quarter million of Americans, making this kind of identity fraud the fastest-growing type of identity theft, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
According to the National Consumers League (NCL), which operates Fraud.org, tax ID fraud occurs when a scammer files a tax return using someone else’s personal information and then illegally collects the victims’ tax refunds. Filing a false tax return requires that a criminal have access to a victim’s name, Social Security number, date of birth, and a falsified W-2 form. Victims often only find out they’ve been defrauded after they try to file their own legitimate tax return and receive a letter from the IRS stating that someone else already filed in their name.
At Fraud.org, the new alert offers several steps consumers can take that may help reduce the risk of tax ID fraud, save money on tax preparation, and prevent filing errors on returns.
1 File early. Filing early in the tax season is the easiest way to reduce the risk of an identity thief beating you to it, and stealing your refund. The sooner you file, the better. Starting January 23, 2017, the IRS will begin accepting federal tax return filings. Waiting until closer to this year’s deadline (April 18) to file gives identity thieves more time to file a return in your name, receive your refund, and take your check to the bank.
2 Get educated about the law. A new law called the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes (PATH) Act requires the IRS to hold refund checks until February 15 for consumers who claim the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) or Additional Child Tax Credit (ACTC). While you may have to wait a bit longer to get your refund check this year, the delay will help the IRS identify and stop more tax fraud. Beware of tax preparation companies who claim to be able to get you your refund sooner than February 15. Tax preparers who promise this will almost certainly be giving you a high-interest loan that will eat into your refund.
3 Check with IRS on the status of your refund. Due to weekends and the President’s Day holiday, some consumers who claim the EITC or ACTC may not get their refunds in their bank accounts until the week of February 27. To check the status of your refund, visit the IRS’s Where’s My Refund? website or take advantage of the IRS2Go smartphone app.
4 Take advantage of free tax preparation help. For those who generally make $54,000 or less, you may qualify for free tax help. Skip the high-cost tax preparation outfits and, instead, take advantage of free tax preparation assistance from Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) programs in your community. VITA programs are staffed by IRS-certified volunteers who can help you navigate this year’s delay and prepare accurate returns safely and securely.
5 Use Free File to e-file. Consumers who make up to $62,000 per year qualify for the IRS’s Free File program, which allows the use of free, name-brand tax filing software from some of the biggest names in the tax prep business.
At Fraud.org, NCL also resources and advice for those who may have fallen victim to tax identity fraud.