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Thieves preying on tax returns, IRS says

By Donna Gehrke-White, Sun Sentinel

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — If you haven’t filed your tax return yet, someone may have filed it for you.

The federal government has stepped up efforts to get between identity thieves and their latest targets: fat tax refunds.

Last week, the Internal Revenue Service announced that 105 people in 23 states had been targeted as part of a national identity theft crackdown involving the potential theft of thousands of identities and taxpayer refunds.

At one IRS office in Florida, at least a dozen tax filers said they spent hours in line to report someone had already filed their returns — with the tax season just weeks old.

The IRS has been grappling with a nearly five-fold increase in taxpayer identity theft between 2008 and 2010, a Government Accountability Office official told a House hearing last summer. Incidents spiraled from about 52,000 in 2008 to nearly 250,000 in 2010.

But federal officials — from prosecutors to IRS officials — have promised tough action.

“The IRS is aggressively pursuing those who steal others’ identities in order to file false returns,” Steven Miller, the agency’s IRS Deputy Commissioner for Services and Enforcement, said in a written statement.

A dozen taxpayers complained of missing work last week while they waited at the IRS office in Plantation, Fla., to file identity theft affidavits.

Wilda Williams of Miramar, Fla., said she first tried to file a police report when she found someone had already filed a tax return in her name.

“But the police wouldn’t take it,” she said.

Officers told Williams to go to the IRS office, where she ended up waiting for hours Wednesday in a line outside the IRS’ office.

“You don’t know how it happened,” Williams said, that another person could get enough information to file a fake tax return.

Shatina Burke of Coral Springs, Fla., said she had been counting on getting a $6,000 income tax refund check, only to be told by her paid tax preparer that someone else had already filed hers — “some identity thief.”

Burke said she was turned away the first time she tried to file an identity theft affidavit at the Plantation IRS office.

“I was standing in line for three hours, and they told me I had to come back,” she said.

So Burke said she took off work to again stand in line until she finally could see an IRS agent to file the required affidavit.

IRS spokesman Mike Dobzinski apologized for the long waits, but said the Plantation office has six vacancies, and the IRS can’t hire replacements because of a federal hiring freeze.

The IRS already has announced that some early taxpayers who filed on or before Jan. 25 may have to wait a week longer than expected, because of new anti-fraud safeguards being installed on computer systems that required “fine-tuning.”

Dobzinski said Burke and other victims can download affidavits from and mail them in.

Burke said since she had waited so long, she wanted to see an IRS representative. Plus, she said she wanted to be assured that the IRS had received the affidavit.

Tammy Reib, a Coconut Creek, Fla., single mom of three, said she finally was able to turn in her ID theft affidavit with an IRS worker in Plantation after waiting seven hours last week. Then, the accounting assistant said, she was told it may be another four to six months before she gets a refund of nearly $5,000.

“I was so excited just to be catching up on my bills,” Reib said. She dreamed of getting a new couch.

Her boss, Linda Webb, said she worries that the IRS may become overwhelmed with fraud cases. “This is just the start of tax season,” she said.

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