BOISE -- This tax season, some Idahoans are filing only to find out someone else has already filed for their return. It's a form of identity theft and fraud that is increasing rapidly nationwide.
A KTVB viewer emailed his story to us via email, saying when he went to file his federal tax return, he was told he'd already filed. Now, he has to prove who he is to get his return, and worse, someone likely has his social security number.
Local tax officials confirm this does happen in Idaho, though the criminals may be out of state or out of country. In 2009, the Federal Trade Commission reports tax fraud only accounted for about 12% of identity theft, but in 2012, that number crept up to 43%.
"It wasn't really on our radar until about four years ago when a couple came through my desk," Tawnya Eldredge, Idaho State Tax Commission Tax Enforcement Supervisor, said. "The following year, I had closer to 15 or 20. The next year, almost three times that many. It's just continued to increase to the point that I'm handling three or four cases of identity theft a day."
In tax identity theft cases, Eldredge says people usually find out because their social security number was already used on another tax return. Often, other information, like income and address don't match the victim's true information, but if they file after a criminal, the flag will come up then.
"Income tax identity thieves have gotten there first, and they've gotten their money, and they've gotten out of town," Eldredge said.
Cases have increased dramatically. Officials say that's partially because the internet has made it easy for criminals to phish for, and sometimes sell, social security numbers and other identifying information.
"It's becoming big business. It's a numbers game. If you get enough people who give you their information, if you get enough refunds, if you get enough credit cards that you can compromise, you can really rake in the money," Eldredge said.
In response, the federal IRS and Idaho State Tax Commission have added employees and safeguards to catch fraud.
"When we initially started electronic filing, we were reviewing probably about 10% of the returns. Right now, we review approximately 17% of the electronic returns that are filed," Doreen Warren, Idaho Tax Commission Division Administrator for Revenue Operations, said.
It's possible criminals can get money if tax officials don't catch them, but in Idaho, the commission says it's rare, and they usually stop the payment early enough. This year they haven't had any confirmed cases of paying a return to the wrong person.
"Last year we stopped 138 confirmed fraudulent returns, and actually prevented $660,000 from walking out the door," Warren said.
To help prevent a headache, the experts' advice is to protect your personal information and file taxes early.
"It's almost a race. The identity thieves are trying to file sooner because they don't want their filing to get hung up because somebody else has already filed," Eldredge said. "So the sooner that you file, the less chance that someone else can do it, and the sooner you will know if your identity has been compromised and can take action."
Eldredge says most fraudulent returns are filed electronically, though she notes not all rejected e-file returns are identity theft. Sometimes it's simple errors like a parent claiming a child when they have already claimed themselves or separated parents both claim the children. Another case may be a spouse e-filing returns and not consulting the other.
If you suspect someone else has fraudulently filed your taxes, you can contact the Idaho State Tax Commission at 208-334-7660 (Monday-Friday 8:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m.) or the IRS Identity Protection Specialized Unit at 1-800-908-4490 (Monday-Friday 7:00 a.m.-7:00 p.m.).
Eldredge notes if you are the victim of tax identity theft, your information could be compromised in other ways, so you should check bank accounts and call police to file a report.