Tag Archives: Inspector General

New Worry on ID Theft: Tax Fraud

Statistics on identity theft show that tax-related fraud causes billions of dollars of financial harm, but tax fraud assistance may or may not be included in identity theft protection products. For comprehensive coverage, an identity theft protection service must include tax fraud assistance.

What is tax fraud?

Instances of tax fraud could involve…

  • Phone scams where thieves pretend to be the IRS calling for money or information
  • Phishing scams where fraudsters send fake IRS emails or set up unsolicited websites to get money or information
  • Criminals using false information or a taxpayer’s stolen information to file fraudulent tax returns, thereby getting the victim’s refund
  • Dishonest tax preparers who defraud their clients with false deductions, inflated expenses or the like

How common is tax fraud?

Every tax season – and all the months in between – the U.S. Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) deals with dishonest tax-related schemes. The TIGTA has received well over 90,000 complaints about IRS phone scams and found that victims have lost approximately $5 million.

In 2013, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) received 1,455,146 identity theft complaints – a third of which stemmed from tax-related fraud. In 2014, the FTC’s 1.5 million fraud-related complaints revealed that consumers have paid a total of $1.7 billion because of fraud, and a third of those complaints were also tax-related.

Fake tax returns cause problems, as well: $4 billion of tax refunds went to fraudsters after they sent in fake tax returns to the IRS.

How do identity theft protection plans address tax fraud?

Unfortunately, not many products provide services specifically geared toward preventing tax fraud. Common features, like credit monitoring, are less likely to catch these kinds of crimes because tax information is not connected to the main credit activity being monitored.

Another reason for lack of tax fraud assistance could be strict limitations on a third party’s ability to communicate with the IRS. The IRS requires that anyone communicating with it on a victim’s behalf must have IRS-approved credentials (e.g. enrolled agent, certified tax preparer or certified public accountant).

The upkeep of a tax fraud assistance division can get expensive, as well. A significant amount of time and money are needed for finding approved specialists, giving them the time to work through each case and maintaining the correct credentials. Some certifications involve continuing education, periodic renewal fees that can really add up and purchasing and maintaining a tax preparer bond in the thousands of dollars.

Despite limited capabilities to detect that a member is a victim of tax fraud or act on a victim’s behalf with the IRS, a specialist could still assist victims by guiding them on what to do next and giving them the necessary resources to carry out the steps themselves.

How can you avoid tax fraud?

First, whether it’s on your own or through an identity theft protection plan, tap into resources about how to avoid victimization. For example, learn how to pick a reliable tax preparer and how to handle tax documents with confidential information.

Second, make sure your protection plan includes Social Security number (SSN) monitoring because your SSN is a key piece of information that the IRS uses to confirm your tax return actually came from you. In some instances, if a taxpayer’s SSN is at risk, the IRS will issue a special PIN number that differentiates the taxpayer’s real tax return from the thief’s fake ones.

Third is tax fraud assistance, which provides access to professionals who will help victims report the crime and address the resulting issues. Victims of tax scams deal with the same burden of significant financial losses and rebuilding reputations that accompany any other kind of fraud. Support from people who are familiar with both the tax system and identity theft recovery will give victims direction and help them take action.

Taxes are already frustrating for many, so adding the problem of identity theft only aggravates the situation. The statistics prove that tax fraud is relevant and must be taken into account when building security against identity theft and fraudulent activity.

Social Security Numbers Are Dead

I am a senior citizen. While this distinction entitles me to a variety of perks like discounted movies and bus fare – as well as the occasional free doughnut (seriously) — it’s also a ticket to the identity theft lottery.

Turning 50 gets you an invitation to AARP, and turning 65 gets you a Medicare card. What’s this have to do with identity theft? Take a close look at a Medicare card. The identification number? It’s a combination of the cardholder’s Social Security number and one or two letters.

Health insurers no longer include Social Security numbers on the cards they issue to people. The concern was that using SSNs needlessly increased the risk of identity theft, which was, and continues to be, rising exponentially. When health insurers made the change, they stopped being co-conspirators in what has become a national epidemic.

According an article by reporter Robert Pear in the New York Times, private insurers under contract with Medicare are not permitted to use SSNs on insurance cards when providing medical or prescription drug benefits. But in a serious case of “Do as I say, not as I do,” Medicare has used Social Security numbers on more than 50 million benefit cards, heedless of the warnings of privacy advocates, consumer protection officials, federal auditors and investigators working on identity theft cases.

Section 501 of the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015, a bipartisan provision written by Rep. Sam Johnson (R-TX) and Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX), signed into law recently by President Obama, finally mandates the removal of Social Security numbers from our Medicare cards. (Well, let’s just say it begins the process — and, like all processes in Washington, let’s hope it actually gets done before my toddler is eligible for Medicare.) The new law is clear: Social Security numbers must not be “displayed, coded or embedded on the Medicare card.”

More than 4,500 of my fellow seniors enroll in Medicare every day. It is estimated that over the next 10 years, some 18 million more of us are projected to qualify, which will bring the total Medicare enrollment to 74 million by 2025.

What Lit the Fire?

After years of begging, cajoling and warning to no avail, what finally forced both parties in Washington to get off their butts and get it right?

Pear speculates that is wasn’t one thing but a set of circumstances starting with the nearly universal digitization of medical records and, of course, ending with a culture plagued by highly effective hackers. Consider that in just the first quarter of 2015 more than 91 million Social Security numbers were exposed to unauthorized persons in just two data compromises: Anthem and Premera.

What the new system will look like is still anyone’s guess. Here’s what we know, according to the New York Times article: SSNs will be replaced by a “randomly generated Medicare beneficiary identifier.” Additionally, Medicare officials have eight years to get the new system completely up and running—four years to issue cards to new beneficiaries and four more years to reissue cards to existing beneficiaries. It was unclear whether those two four-year items were to happen simultaneously, but since we’re talking about a government timeline there is an argument for erring on the side of forever.

Like all major government initiatives, this will be no small feat. But it is a critical one if we are to stop hearing the pitter-patter of scammer feet tap dancing on the finances of senior citizens.

Why did it take so long? Why does the IRS still require SSNs? Because we’re talking about the government.

The record speaks for itself:

  • 2004 – The Government Accountability Office warns we must reduce our dependence on Social Security numbers as individual identifiers.
  • 2007 – The White House Office of Management and Budget directs federal agencies to “eliminate the unnecessary collection and use of Social Security numbers” within two years.
  • 2008 – The inspector general of Social Security calls for the immediate removal of Social Security numbers from Medicare cards. The departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs launch major initiatives to delete Social Security numbers from their identification cards.

How about the Department of Health and Human Services, which supervises the Medicare program? Well, let’s just say that according to the Times, the GAO felt that HHS was moving—shall we say—glacially and that it really was all about money. (Forget the fact that identity theft costs America and Americans billions annually.)

The Medicare agency is no small operation. It pays close to 1 billion claims from 1.5 million healthcare providers every year. While I understand that the HHS has considerable budgetary and logistical issues when dealing with the identification quagmire, it is nothing compared with the expense and uproar caused by identity theft in the lives of the people HHS serves. That’s a long way of saying that this identification card “modification” is long overdue.

In the meantime, what can you do if you’re concerned that your Social Security number is in the wrong hands? Because the number can be used to perpetrate many types of crimes, not just credit-related, the problem can be difficult to track. But it’s still important to check your credit reports regularly for signs of fraud — like new accounts you didn’t authorize. You can get your free annual credit reports from AnnualCreditReport.com, and you can get a free credit report summary, updated every month on Credit.com, to watch for changes.

That said, we are not living in a “So it is written, so it is done” age. Congress has to sit on the HHS to get 100% compliance with the law as it was passed. And we have to sit on Congress. And while we are sitting on our favorite 535 federal lawmakers, perhaps they can ask the IRS what’s taking it so long to make some changes — including killing the SSN as identifier — so Americans can stop being such sitting ducks in the sights of miscreants.