Posted on April 16th, 2013 No comments
As South Floridians rushed to file their taxes on Monday, congressional lawmakers said they would push for tougher laws to help cut down on what law enforcement officials continue to call an “epidemic” of tax-related theft in the region. U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, said she will reintroduce legislation to enact tougher penalties against identity thieves.
Read the full article at http://www.sun-sentinel.com/business/fl-id-theft-law-20130415,0,5030102.story
Posted on April 16th, 2013 No comments
Tax Day is no longer just a deadline for citizens to rush and file their returns. It’s now a day for members of Congress — Democrats and Republicans alike —to file legislation or announce ways to prevent an estimated $5 billion in tax-identification fraud, which is particularly virulent in Florida and especially South Florida.
The effort by local lawmakers is nothing new, nor is the fact that the measures have died year-after-year in a do-nothing Congress.
On Monday, Miami-area Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Joe Garcia and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen all promoted legislation to put an end to the practice. Florida Sen. Bill Nelson announced a bill last week.
“Something needs to be done,” said Jon Simpkins, a Miami-Dade businessman who appeared with his wife, a tax-ID fraud victim, at Garcia’s press conference.
It took the Internal Revenue Service until April 8 to supply the family their tax-refund money from last year — a week before this year’s tax-filing deadline.
“I’m surprised they haven’t fixed this yet,” Simpkins said, detailing the delays and difficulties of just getting the IRS to do its job.
But the delay in fixing the growing problem isn’t just a window into the problems with the IRS. It’s an example of a broken Congress that struggles to accomplish the most-basic of tasks — including an issue members of all parties agree on: Stopping fraud.
Last year, for instance, Sen. Nelson’s crackdown bill stalled and died in the Senate because leadership said it didn’t want to deal with any new tax issues or tax reform — except for figuring out what to do with the then-expiring payroll tax cuts and the so-called Bush tax cuts.
So even though Nelson’s bill was more of a fraud-fighting proposal, it was considered tax legislation. And it was bottled up by the advent of the so-called “fiscal cliff” and budget-sequester negotiations. The bill could face another challenge this year: the banking-and-credit industry.
Nelson wants to make it tougher for thieves to get tax refunds electronically direct-deposited on prepaid debit cards. The cards have become increasingly common ways for regular citizens to get their returns credited to a bank account electronically. But, because the cards can be purchased by phone or internet and leave few fingerprints, scammers use them as well.
Tax ID fraud is simple and lucrative. Thieves purchase Social Security numbers and names of people on the black market. Then they download tax forms electronically, plug in the stolen information and file false returns. They request refunds be sent to prepaid cards or, less often, by check.
The scam is usually pulled in January and February. Most citizens file weeks or months later. If someone used their information on a tax form, the IRS then refuses to instantly pay the citizen as it did the scammer. Victims then wait for months or, in Simpkin’s case, almost a year for their refund.
Broward Sheriff Detective Mitch Gordon warned that cracking down on debit cards won’t stop the crime entirely. But he said the cards are a good way to steal.
“One time, we had one guy who sat at a Western Union machine for six hours just putting in debit cards, putting in debit cards,” said Gordon, who estimated the office has had 400 complaints this year.
The Miami area is the top tax-related identity theft area in the nation, and Florida has nine of the top 10 cities for the fraud.
South Florida accounted for 35,914 identity-theft complaints in 2012.
“It has happened to so many people,” said Rep. Garcia. “It happened to me.”
Garcia’s bill isn’t as sweeping as Nelson’s. It would change the law to forbid the printing of a person’s entire Social Security Number on a W-2 tax form, a major primary source for thieves who obtained them from unscrupulous employees or employers.
Wasserman-Schultz, a Democrat like Garcia, wants to increase penalties and make federal prosecutors prioritize tax ID cases.
Rep. Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican, is co-sponsoring both bills.
“These bills focus much needed attention to identity theft, a problem that is clearly not a victimless crime,” Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement.
Another Republican Rep., Mario Diaz-Balart, hasn’t studied the legislation but has held IRS officials to account in budget hearings. He tacked on an amendment to a budget bill that requires the agency to better track tax ID theft cases.
With such bipartisan support for such an important topic, Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic National Committee chairwoman, said she hopes something will pass. “It seems like a no-brainer,” she said.
Posted on April 15th, 2013 No comments
An epidemic of tax-related identity theft continues to plague the Internal Revenue Service despite efforts by the agency and law enforcement officials to combat the fraud, witnesses told a Senate panel Wednesday.
“We are losing $5 billion each year to this crime, and now the problem is getting worse,” said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., the chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging.
Criminals use stolen personal information to file fraudulent tax returns, usually in January, before the real taxpayers have a chance to file. By the time the victims send in their returns, it’s too late: The IRS already has mailed refund checks to the identity thieves. It can take months – even years – for the IRS to untangle the mess and send the taxpayers the refunds they’re owed.
Nine of the 10 U.S. cities hit hardest by the scam are in Florida. The Miami metropolitan area tops the list, with 35,914 cases of tax-related identity theft reported last year and the highest per capita rate of complaints, 645 per 100,000 residents.
Miami was followed by Atlanta, which had 12,992 complaints, Tampa, Fla., with 9,805, and Orlando, Fla., with 4,991.
Nationwide, cases of tax-related identity theft surged 650 percent from 2008 to 2012. In 2011, thieves filed 1.5 million undetected fraudulent tax returns and received $5.2 billion in refunds, according to an audit last year by the Department of the Treasury’s inspector general.
Witness Marcy Hossli, 57, of Lake Worth, Fla., has been a victim of identity theft through tax fraud three years in a row.
“I should never have to go through anything like this, nor should anyone else,” Hossli said. “I feel violated. It’s hard to concentrate in work. I am stressed constantly.”
Hossli told senators she still is waiting for her 2012 tax refund. She suffers from cancer and owes $4,000 in medical bills. “I really need the money,” she said.
Senators expressed frustration that the IRS hasn’t been able to do a better job at catching fraud even though criminals often use the same addresses to file multiple returns.
Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said thieves used the same address in Lansing, Mich., to file 2,137 tax returns, and they received $3.3 million in refunds. An address in Chicago was used to steal $900,000 in refunds through almost 800 fraudulent returns, Collins said.
“Criminal gangs have figured out that it’s cheaper and easier for them to steal taxpayers’ identities and hijack their refunds than it is to traffic in drugs, rob banks or fence stolen property,” Collins said.
“The IRS has an obligation that obviously they’re not meeting,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. “How in the world can there not be a system in place that the IRS could not catch that they’re sending 2,000 refunds to the same address?”
Tax refund thieves commonly target senior citizens, as well as low-income people and students, who might not be required to file returns.
The audit by the Treasury Department’s inspector general estimated that 76,000 senior citizens likely were victims of tax fraud identity theft in 2010, resulting in $374 million in fraudulent tax refunds.
Victims often have their identities stolen by corrupt employees at nursing homes and hospitals, Kathryn Keneally, assistant attorney general for the Department of Justice’s tax division, said in her testimony before the committee. In other cases, criminals take names from public death lists to file tax returns, she said.
“For the public the risk is clear,” Keneally said. Such crimes “can and do arise in any setting where the lure of fast money puts at risk personal identifying information, including at state agencies, student loan providers, the military, prisons, companies servicing Medicaid programs – the list is growing all too long.”
Postal workers have been compromised, robbed and in one case killed in order to steal refund checks, she said.
Prosecuting tax-refund identity theft is a national priority, she added.
Legislation Nelson introduced this week would increase jail time and fines for people convicted of tax-related identity theft and direct the IRS to close identity theft cases within 90 days. Last year, it took an average of 196 days for the IRS to close such cases.
The delays are unacceptable, Nelson said. He said victims of identity theft shouldn’t have to wait six months for their refunds, much less two years, as at least one woman in Parkland, Fla., had to do.
“Many Americans rely on getting those tax refunds back so they can pay their bills,” he added.
Nelson’s bill, co-sponsored by fellow Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Charles Schumer of New York, also would ensure that victims don’t have to explain their plight to different IRS employees every time they contact the agency. Instead, the IRS would give each victim a single point of contact to help track the case.
Other provisions include restrictions that would make it harder for thieves to load stolen refunds onto prepaid cards, language that allows identity theft victims to opt out of electronic filing and prohibitions on printing Social Security numbers on Medicare ID cards and communications.
Posted on April 9th, 2013 No comments
WASHINGTON — The 2014 budget proposal to be released by the White House on Wednesday will include new steps to combat what the Internal Revenue Service says is an exponential growth in tax refund-related identity theft.
A preview of the measures provided by administration officials Tuesday includes increasing criminal sentences for those convicted of tax-related identity theft and creating new civil penalties for those who file fraudulent returns.
The IRS would be able to assess a $5,000 civil penalty for each incidence of identity theft.
Under the plan, the government would also limit access to Social Security Administration files on deceased individuals that have been used by those seeking fraudulent refunds. Instead, the files that the SSA compiles would be available immediately only to those who legitimately need the information for fraud prevention purposes. All other users would have to wait three years for access.
The proposal would also revise the W-2 form that employers must provide the IRS so that it includes an “identifying number” for each employee rather than the employee’s Social Security number.
As of the end of 2012 the IRS had more than 3,000 employees working on identity theft issues, more than double from the previous year.
The tax agency says that in 2012 it prevented $20 billion in fraudulent returns, including those related to identity theft, compared to $14 billion the previous year. It says that it stopped 5 million suspicious returns in 2012, up from 3 million in 2011.
Posted on September 27th, 2012 No comments
As identity theft has skyrocketed in the last five years, more South Floridians are being plunged into the aggravating and painfully slow process of proving they exist after thieves steal their identity.
From thieves installing ATM skimmer devices at Publix Supermarkets to those filing fraudulent tax returns in someone else’s name, identity theft has left many South Florida victims in financial limbo. College students can’t get financial aid. Some people can’t close on homes they were scheduled to buy. Others can’t get new credit cards. Thousands have had to wait more than a year for federal tax refunds they were counting on to pay bills.
Identity theft affects South Florida’s young and old — from babies’ newly issued Social Security numbers being filched to thieves stealing identities from the graves of the deceased.
Even law enforcement officers haven’t escaped. Davie Police Capt. Dale Engle, has been waiting seven months for his federal tax refund check, since a thief filed for one in his name — just five days before Engle tried to submit his own. “It’s a huge problem,” Engle said.
Such is the reality in South Florida, where the dramatic jump in reported incidents to the Federal Trade Commission — from 8,317 cases in 2007 to 17,668 in 2011 — has made us the identity theft capital of the nation. More identity thefts per capita occur here than in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago or any other large urban area of the country.
Last year saw the number of identity thefts explode, with claims jumping 76 percent in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties. South Florida reports increased from 184 per 100,000 population in 2010 to 324 per 100,000 population in 2011, according to the FTC.
For Richard Zadanoff, 77, having his identity hijacked meant his plans to move from a home to a condo were upended. The Tamarac man discovered the problem earlier this year during tax season, but he couldn’t close on the condo because the bank found records of someone else’s claim to be him at a different address.
Zadanoff stood in line for hours at the Internal Revenue Service office in Plantation to report that his identity had been stolen — only to be turned away because so many others were ahead of him. He finally got an IRS office in Virginia to take his information by phone.
Victims of tax-related identity theft are required to file affidavits with the IRS and report the case to local police. Some departments have balked because they figure the federal government will investigate, said Cindy A. Liebes, the FTC’s Southeast regional director. But sometimes victims can’t get credit agencies to list the identity theft in their files unless there is a police report, she said.
The FTC also recommends that victims report the crime to the Social Security Administration.
Carol Flynn, of Davie, said the IRS didn’t tell her to report her tax-related identity theft to local police, the FTC, the SSA and the credit reporting agencies. She’s still waiting to hear about her refund, but said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson’s staff directed her to a taxpayer advocate who is updating her about her case.
At times, state and local agencies also have inadvertently put personal information online.
Bruce Hogman, a senior computer systems consultant who lives in Fort Lauderdale, was upset when he learned that Broward County had published some of his personal information online.
“My Social Security number was on the web for five years before a neighbor told me,” he said.
Broward County promptly removed his number after he alerted them, Hogman said.
Still, he fears others may be exposed to identity theft because some of their personal information may remain online in public documents such as deeds.
Lyz DeMarco, of Hollywood, couldn’t believe it when the IRS rejected a tax return because a thief had claimed her identity first; she had already been a victim twice before.
Once, someone tried to buy surfboards in Texas with her stolen credit card number. “It was a crazy amount of surfboards,” she said. Another time someone tried to use her debit card at a sports bar. “They must have made a counterfeit one,” she said. “I had mine with me.”
DeMarco said she encountered hurdles when she tried to report the crime, with police telling her they didn’t take IRS cases. On a third try, police took a report. The IRS required her to submit an “identity theft affidavit” to prove who she was. She spent hours on the telephone with different IRS staffers before her theft claim was finally accepted.
Despite the ordeal, which lasted half a year, DeMarco considers herself lucky. She called the IRS on Wednesday, and after she was on hold for an hour, this time there was good news.
Her refund was being wired into her bank account — with $50 in interest.
“I was floored — I was absolutely floored,” DeMarco said.