Identity theft creates havoc with tax refund

 Igor Vorobyov photo (2009)
Igor Vorobyov photo (2009)
Published September 21 2014
Updated September 21 2014

Last week I finally got my tax refund — nearly six months after I filed my return.

I could curse IRS bureaucrats for the delay but, really, it's not their fault. Some lowlife stole my identity and filed a return using my Social Security number.

Sadly, I'm not alone.

The IRS shelled out $3.6 billion in potentially fraudulent returns in 2012. That was actually an improvement over the previous year, but it's still an ugly number. The IRS identified more than 2.9 million incidents of identity theft in 2013 and has described identity theft as the No. 1 tax scam for 2014.

My ordeal began on April 7 when I attempted to file my 2013 return through TurboTax, an online tax preparing service I had used problem-free for 10 years. "Your return has been rejected by the IRS,'' the electronic notice said.

TurboTax said the feds had already accepted a return with the same Social Security number and, as a result, I had to mail my return to the IRS. TurboTax suspected someone else had listed the same Social Security number for a dependent. That's a common cause of rejection, typically occurring when divorced spouses each claim the same child as a dependent.

At first glance, the IRS said I wasn't a victim of identity theft because the issue pertained to a dependent's number, not mine.

Soon after, I got a notice stating that I had filed more than one return for the year. "You should file only one income tax return each year,'' the form letter said.

No duh.

The next curveball arrived three months later in the form of a check for $125.53. The letter said the bulk of my return — thousands of dollars — had been deposited into an H&R Block account back in March, long before I ever filed my return. "We understand your concern about your refund and want to do everything possible to locate it.''

Finally having a clue, I marched to my nearest H&R Block office, hoping the money was lost in an account waiting for momma. Of course it wasn't. H&R Block had no record of the bank account. The account number didn't even have the correct number of digits.

The H&R Block people said they would investigate the issue for a fee of $75. I hated paying money to chase my own money but I wasn't getting anywhere on my own.

H&R figured my refund had been loaded onto a debit card, a common practice for tax fraud cases. The check I received was the balance between the refund amount of the fraudulent return and my real return. The bad guys got very close to the actual refund amount. Impressive.

Meanwhile, I tried my best to contact the IRS, a.k.a. the Black Hole. One gruff employee told me I didn't qualify for a "taxpayer advocate'' because I wasn't facing foreclosure or eviction from my home. Thank goodness I wasn't, but does that mean only those on the brink of homelessness get help?

I also went to the IRS office on Columbus Drive in Tampa, hoping a face-to-face conversation might fix the mess. I arrived before the office opened at 8:30 a.m. only to find dozens of people already in line waiting to do the same thing. The guard said it would take four hours to reach an agent, which wasn't an option given I had to work.

I left in a huff, aghast that the government thinks this is acceptable.

Two friends who are federal employees recommended I go to my U.S. representative, who could move my case to the top of the stack or at least close to it. That turned out to be golden. Within a day of giving her my paperwork, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor's staff requested a review of my case, and I was assigned a taxpayer advocate.

The taxpayer advocate called once a month with updates. "Yes, you have been flagged as identity theft,'' she said in August. "Getting close to issuing your refund,'' she said a few weeks ago. "Just sit tight, we're juggling a lot of cases.''

It wasn't too long ago that Tampa led the country in incidents of tax fraud. Law enforcement and legislators worked hard to shake the distinction and, last year, cheered when Tampa dropped off the list. Castor's office saw its number of IRS cases drop from 168 in 2012 to 41 so far this year.

I celebrated my own, small victory when my check arrived from the Department of the Treasury, a picture of Lady Liberty shining bright on the front.

I have no idea how my identity was stolen and probably never will. Lucky for my wallet, the IRS gives you your money even if the thieves aren't caught.

Contact Susan Thurston at [email protected] or (813) 225-3110. Follow @susan_thurston.

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