By now, most Americans have filed their 2015 returns and gotten their refunds, and will probably ignore their taxes for the rest of the year.
But a growing number of people don’t have that luxury.
They may not see their refunds for months because they were victims of refund fraud.
It’s a crime that’s increased in recent years as cybercriminals have stolen personal data from all sorts of companies — employers, insurers, payroll service providers universities and retailers to name just a few.
Once a system with your data gets hacked, the next thing you know, the criminals have filed a tax return in your name and claimed your tax refund. You only learn about it once you try filing your own return and are told someone has beat you to the punch.
That’s more or less what happened to Cory Busse.
Busse told CNNMoney that his employer emailed staff in March to tell them that a third-party vendor had been hacked, and that 400 workers, including Busse, had their data compromised, including their Social Security numbers.
He subsequently called the IRS and was told his Social Security number had already been used to file his 2015 federal tax return a few weeks earlier.
He normally gets a refund amounting to a few thousand dollars. But he was told it could take up to 6 months to see that money as a result of the fraud. He was also told to file his real tax return on paper and mail it in.
Busse had lots of company. During the first month and a half of the 2016 tax season, the IRS had already identified more than 42,000 tax returns with nearly $227 million claimed in fraudulent refunds, according to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration.
And through Dec. 31, 2015, it had confirmed more than 1 million fraudulent returns, and managed to block the issuance of nearly $7 billion in fraudulent refunds.
But while the IRS has done a lot to identify bogus returns, TIGTA has identified the rise in this particular crime as a “major management challenge” for the agency.
That may be in part because it’s only one form of tax-related identity theft that the IRS has to contend with. An even larger and faster growing crime is the perniciousphone scam.
Criminals typically call people unsolicited, claiming to be from the IRS. The scammers tell unwitting victims that they owe taxes and that they will be criminally prosecuted if they don’t make a payment immediately. They also may threaten them with arrest, loss of their driver’s license, deportation or some other seriously negative consequence.
There are some steps everyone can take to avoid becoming a victim of tax-related identity theft, but as Busse is learning the hard way, there’s only so much in one’s control.