Many people file their income tax returns as early in the year as possible. Some are eager to claim their tax refund right away, while others are simply following their New Year's resolution not to procrastinate until midnight, April 15.
Let me add another good reason to file your taxes right away: Tax refund identity fraud.
That's where someone uses your Social Security number, birth date and other private information to file a fraudulent income tax return in your name and then pockets the resulting tax refund. Often, a victim's first clue is a letter from the IRS, contesting their legitimate tax return, saying one has already been processed under that name. It can take months - and mounds of paperwork - to unravel the mess.
This scam has proliferated in recent years thanks to a confluence of events:
• There's a thriving black market in personal information stolen from health care facilities, nursing homes, schools, insurance companies and other institutions that require a Social Security number as identification.
• The IRS is pressured to begin issuing refunds shortly after taxpayers start filing returns in mid-January, even though employers and financial institutions aren't required to submit withholding and income documentation until the end of March. So disparities often are not caught until months later.
• The growing popularity of electronic filing, where hard-copy documentation (like W-2 and 1099 forms) isn't required.
• Many people receive refunds via direct deposit and prepaid debit cards. Criminals open and close accounts using bogus addresses long before the theft has been detected.
Thanks to severe budget cuts and chronic understaffing - not to mention constantly playing whack-a-mole with thieves who dream up new schemes - the IRS is hard-pressed to keep up. In one extreme example, the agency issued more than $3.3 million in refunds for 2,137 tax returns filed to a single address.
But all is not lost. The IRS has significantly beefed up its fraud-prevention efforts. In 2011, they intercepted nearly 262,000 fraudulent tax returns seeking almost $1.5 billion in refunds related to identity theft. And they now issue special personal identification numbers to impacted taxpayers to protect their future tax filings.
So what should you do if you've been victimized? Typically, the IRS will send you a notice that:
• More than one tax return for you was filed;
• You have a balance due, refund offset or have had collection actions taken against you for a year in which you didn't file a return; or
• IRS records indicate you received wages from an employer you don't recognize. This could indicate that someone has used your personal information to get a job.
If you receive such a notice, don't ignore it. Complete an Identity Theft Affidavit (IRS Form 14039 at www.irs.gov) and return it with a copy of the notice to the address provided on the notice. If you did not receive a notice but believe you may be at risk, the form contains separate submission instructions.
The IRS's Identity Theft Protection website includes tons of helpful information, including ways to tell whether your identity may have been stolen, how to report a breach and tips to avoid identity theft.
And finally, file your tax return as early as possible to beat potential scammers to the punch. If you owe money, you can always file your return now and mail the payment by the April 15 deadline.
Jason Alderman directs the financial education programs for VISA.