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IRS Launches Campaign to Curb Tax Fraud

The campaign — called “Taxes. Security. Together.” — is meant to raise public awareness about how easily consumers can put their personal financial and tax data at risk.

by Mark Williams, The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio / January 11, 2016
The Internal Revenue Service Building in Washington D.C. Flickr/Alyson Hurt
The Internal Revenue Service Building in Washington D.C.Flickr/Alyson Hurt

(TNS) -- The Internal Revenue Service, state tax commissioners and the tax-software industry say they plan to step up their game this tax season in the fight against tax fraud and identity theft.

But they say they can’t do it alone. The three groups have come together to launch a campaign encouraging consumers to do a better job of protecting their personal information.

The campaign — called “Taxes. Security. Together.” — is meant to raise public awareness about how easily consumers can put their personal financial and tax data at risk. It’s just the kind of data that thieves love to get their hands on to file fraudulent tax returns and gain the refunds of those consumers.

“Identity thieves are evolving, and so must we. Everyone has a part to play,” IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said at a news conference recently.

The campaign includes YouTube videos, tax tips and sharing information across state websites and sites used by the tax-software industry.

The partnership is urging consumers to take a variety of steps to ensure the safety of their private information:

  • Use security software to protect computers, including a firewall and anti-virus software. Encrypt files stored on computers and use strong passwords.
  • Watch out for phishing emails and phone scams. Thieves posing as IRS agents will call consumers, threatening jail or fines unless the victims make an immediate payment. Emails might ask a victim to update a bank account or tax-software account, and they provide a link to a fake website meant to steal login information. Sometimes thieves just ask for information.
  • Monitor credit reports and Social Security accounts to make sure no one is using your credit-card or Social Security number. Limit how much personal information you share on social-media sites.

To fight fraud, consumers can expect new security questions and tougher password requirements when logging into tax-software products. The software industry will provide more data from tax returns being submitted to the IRS and the states to help identify fraudulent returns.

The industry, the IRS and the state also have agreed to work together to try to identify new and emerging fraud schemes.

“A major part of this collaborative effort ... is that there is going to be more sharing of information,” said Gary Gudmundson, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Taxation. “If someone is trying to commit tax fraud in Missouri, Missouri will share that information with the other states."

Last year, Ohio began to require some taxpayers to take an identity-confirmation quiz before they could get an income-tax refund. That policy will continue this year with new security measures meant to protect minors.

The state caught heat early on last year for tricky questions on the quiz concerning former homes, ex-spouses and cars bought years earlier, but the quiz was adjusted. Gudmundson said 99 percent of those quizzed passed it.

The reason for increased efforts is that tax fraud is increasing. The IRS said it suspended or rejected 5.6 million suspicious returns seeking billions of dollars in refunds last year, and state and local police agencies in Ohio have noted that they, too, are getting more complaints from tax-fraud victims.

The Ohio Department of Taxation said it has blocked more than 297,000 fraudulent returns attempting to steal $533.7 million in the past two years.

“Tax fraud is an evolving threat, and we are evolving with it,” said Brad Smith, CEO of Intuit, the company behind TurboTax. “These are significant changes that will further safeguard taxpayers and, at the same time, accelerate government’s and industry’s ability to share information to combat fraud.”

Ted Johnson, the tax- and litigation-support partner with accounting firm Parms + Co. in Columbus, said consumers always must be on guard against suspicious emails and phone calls.

He said he received an email supposedly from his bank warning that if he didn’t take action soon, his account would be shut down because of fraudulent transactions. The email was filled with typos and errors in grammar.

“When I get an email with grammar worse than mine, I know something is wrong,” he said.

Although these defensive strategies might work for individuals, a rash of security breaches have hit retailers, health insurers and other businesses, compromising the personal information of millions of Americans.

Julie Wagner Feasel of Lewis Center and her husband received separate letters from the IRS on March 7 telling them that their 2014 tax refund was being withheld for further review, even though they had yet to file their return.

Feasel and her husband were among those affected by the breach at a health insurer that exposed personal information of current and former customers and employees, and Feasel figures those hackers used that information to file a tax return in her name.

After working with the IRS, the couple filed a return by mail that was lost. They filed a second return in June that still awaits IRS processing, and it might be February before their refund arrives. They’ve also been told that their future returns will take longer to process because of the problem, she said.

“Every time I call the IRS, I get so discouraged,” she said. “I feel bad for the people at the IRS. They have compassion."

©2016 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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