From 2011 through 2014, identity thieves submitted more than 19 million suspicious tax returns to the IRS for more than $63 billion in fraudulent refunds. But until recently, taxpayers weren’t allowed to see the fraudulent returns filed using their Social Security numbers (SSNs).
That changed recently, thanks in part to a letter sent to the IRS by Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), who wrote to IRS Commissioner John Koskinen asking that identity theft victims be able to see tax documents related to the thefts.
“Victims of identity theft face significant emotional and financial hardships, and they shouldn’t be left in the dark about the extent of the theft,” Ayotte said in a public statement issued on her website after the IRS changed its policy. “This is a positive step that will help them protect themselves and their families.”
An identity thief may use someone’s SSN to file a tax return. If this happens, when the person actually goes to file, his or her refund will have already been distributed to the thief. This can cause additional serious issues for the victim, including difficulty in finding out where his or her private information was leaked.
With the IRS policy change, consumers will have a chance to get answers, says Aaron Blau, EA, CPA, of the Arizona Society of Enrolled Agents.
“It [offers] people ways to find out why or how their identity was stolen because with these documents, they can start to put the puzzle together,” Blau says. “It definitely helps the consumer to know where [ the theft] occurred.”
That information could, in turn, allow the consumer to track the loss of information and collect benefits. In the case of information being lost via a data breach, many affected companies will offer free identity theft protection products for consumers whose data may have been exposed.
The IRS policy change could help in another way, too: Although the forms will be heavily edited to protect sensitive information contained (even in fraudulent forms), partial bank routing numbers may still be visible.
“Most of the time, the thieves are taking advantage of the direct deposit capabilities; it’s the fastest way to get a refund transmitted,” Blau says. “With the documents in hand, the taxpayer or legal authority can say, ‘Here’s the name on the account, here’s the partial account number,’ and that may be enough to place a hold or a freeze on the bank account.”
In addition to helping spur the IRS policy change, Ayotte also is a cosponsor on the Social Security Identity Defense Act of 2015, introduced by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) in May 2015. This would require the IRS to notify potential identity theft victims as well as law enforcement officials. The law would also add civil penalties and extend jail time for identity thieves.
“The big thing is just knowing what resources are available to you in the case of something happening,” Blau says.
If you’ve been a victim of identity theft and would like to request a copy of a fraudulent return filed using your SSN, go to www.irs.gov and follow the instructions.