ID Theft and the IRS

I am, as a general rule, an identity theft skeptic.  Of course, I know it is a real problem, I just think the smoke to fire ratio is very high. The fear, stress, and peculiar behavior that ID theft causes in consumers is out of all proportion to the actual danger.

Part of the reason the fear outstrips the danger is aUSPS Stamp widespread misunderstanding about who is the usual victim of identity theft. It is generally not the person whose identity is stolen, but the financial institution that gets defrauded in part two of the operation.

And the fact that it is generally large and sophisticated outfits that are the victims leads to the other reason the fear is overdone. ID theft is just not that easy to pull off. It takes a fair amount of effort and cleverness to get a credit card in somebody else’s name, and then the reward is merely that you can charge things for a short period, possibly lasting only hours, before the card company catches on and shuts you down. That is a tough way to make a living.

Or so I thought. Turns out there is one very large financial institution that you can cheat with only the minimum of ID thieving effort. It is called the Internal Revenue Service.

Apparently, according to articles in The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, all you need are a name and an associated Social Security number. You will also need an address. It does not need to have anything to do with the ID you are using, you just need to be able to pick up your loot there. A foreclosed house in your neighborhood will work. Buying a new mailbox for the place is a nice touch.

What you do is fill out a tax return for your stolen identity. You make up all the numbers, the names of employers, dependents, etc. Just make sure that at the end a refund is due. Then file early, to beat the rush and to make sure you are the first person using the identity this year, and wait for your money.

Not a hard way to make a living at all. In the words of the US Assistant Attorney General for taxes this is a “remarkably simple crime to commit.”

Remarkable indeed.

Is there any other outfit this dim-witted? “Dear Citibank: My name is Joe Smith. I’m pretty sure you owe me $10,000. Please send it to this address…” It is not as if the IRS does not have ample data against which to check a fraudulent return. Just about all the significant forms of income a person might have are separately reported by the payers, so the IRS ought to be able to detect fictitious income quickly.

More to the point, a refund is just that, a refund of money already paid. These fraudsters are telling the IRS that they have already paid the IRS money and deserve some of it back. And the IRS takes their word for it.

According to the Times “The fraud, which has spread around the country, is costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars annually, federal and state officials say.”

If you are thoughtful and practically minded, you may be thinking that this scam is not that easy to pull off because what you get for your modest efforts is a refund check in somebody else’s name that needs to be cashed in an untraceable way. Doing that is a non-trivial challenge and I expect that it is why this form of fraud was not quite so popular in the past.

That was then, this is now. Today, the IRS will happily send you a refund not as an old-fashioned paper-trail-creating check, but as “a convenient but hard-to-trace prepaid debit card.” This is a new program launched last year. The idea was to help people without bank accounts, who might otherwise have to pay a fee to cash their check.

The IRS has managed to create a situation where they are, for most practical purposes, sending cash in the mail. And that has had predictable consequences. More impatient criminals, who apparently cannot wait the several weeks it takes to pull off this scam, have taken to robbing mail carriers at gunpoint instead.

“Hundreds of millions of dollars annually” almost certainly makes the IRS, that is, us taxpayers, the biggest ID theft patsy out there. And there is collateral damage. Just as the IRS is too slow to detect the fraud to begin with, it is slow to clear up the fraud when found. According to the Times, it can take as long as a year for the IRS to send a legitimate refund to the actual owner of the ID who filed a non-fictional return with verifiable data.

This is not a particularly hard crime to stop. The IRS could do a better job of checking the data on returns against information from other sources. Or it could flag suspicious returns and hold them until April 15, just to see if maybe another return with the same ID will show up. And there is no reason the debit cards it sends out need to be hard-to-trace. Most plastic is very easy to trace. At the very least, if only for the safety of the mailmen, it could send those cards registered mail, so they need to be picked up at the post office, after showing ID.


  • By Neil, July 9, 2012 @ 1:20 pm

    Tales of US government incompetence never cease to amaze me. If I miss a slip on my tax return, I get a nice system-generated email saying “hey, we think your income is different than you do. We’ve revised your return. Call us if you think we’re wrong. If you do it again next year, there will be a small fine (I think it’s 2% of the value of the error, and only if it’s an error in my favour).”

    Also, changing my address requires some verification of identity…either having the username, password, and Social Insurance # for my online tax account or phoning and being able to provide the numbers from specific lines of last year’s return.

    Why is it that an institution with roughly 10x the resources of the CRA can’t afford a computer system that does this kind of double-check automatically.

  • By Matt, July 9, 2012 @ 1:29 pm

    This is what we have to put up with in my neck of the woods.

  • By jim, July 9, 2012 @ 7:26 pm

    Clearly this shouldn’t be so easy.

    Its not as if the I.R.S. is blindly ignoring the problem…

    “The agency, prodded by lawmakers and the public, is moving more aggressively to stop the avalanche. It has increased the number of investigators, put in place better technology that flags more returns, distributed personal identification numbers to victims for the next filing season and hired more workers to help taxpayers get their refunds. The agency, which had $300 million cut from its budget this year, has invested the same amount in combating the problem.”

    Also hard for the IRS to effectively do its job when our government and the US people would usually rather starve that beast of any funding. “lets give the IRS more money” is never something cheered for in congress or elsewhere. So its only after we see the obvious consequences of underfunding the agency that we decide to fund them.

  • By Frank Curmudgeon, July 10, 2012 @ 12:28 pm


    Yes, but we have better beaches and Mexican food.


    I’m not that comfortable with the argument that government would work better if we spent more on it, although the IRS may make a better case of that than most departments. Still, deciding that sending what are apparently essentailly gift cards in the mail is a good idea is just dumb and has nothing to do with funding. Without seeing the numbers, I would bet that the IRS spends more on fighting ID theft than any bank, and gets much worse results.

  • By Matt R, July 11, 2012 @ 9:58 am


    Most of your criticisms of the IRS are pretty unwarranted. You mentioned that you didn’t check the numbers before commenting. You should have, it’s really not that hard. First of all, the “hundreds of millions of dollars annually” in theft that the article describes really isn’t much money in a $15 trillion economy, and it’s much smaller than the $56 Billion that IRS audits collected in 2008. With an $11.4 billion operating budget in the same year, the IRS is a net money-maker for the federal government by a wide margin. I’ll bet if they increased audits, or held your return for 3 months you’d be pretty upset about that too.

    Second, the prepaid debit cards, or “gift cards” that you refer to, is money that rightfully belongs to the taxpayer, and the government has to balance that person’s privacy with the desire to prevent fraud. They cannot simply track your every movement. What’s more, many American’s don’t have bank accounts. For them, the prepaid debit cards are essential to avoid high check-cashing fees. Fees that they would incur simply to collect money that rightfully belongs to them.

    Think before you comment.

  • By Paul, July 13, 2012 @ 1:08 pm

    Amazing. It’s only hundreds of millions of dollars today, so no big deal, right? That’s absurd. It’s a matter of people defrauding tax payers and the IRS needs to do better. Plus, it really sucks for people whose identities are stolen. A friend of mine had this happen to him and it took months of headaches dealing with the bureaucracy before they would accept that he wasn’t the one committing fraud and they gave him his refund.

  • By jim, July 16, 2012 @ 3:17 pm

    Seems to me that credit card fraud has a higher incidence rate and much higher cost to society. Some amount of fraud / theft is inevitable and unavoidable. I’m not saying thats a good thing but you can’t be 100% perfect. I’d say 99% perfect is acceptable. I think most private businesses settle for that all the time. e.g. a 1% loss rate to shop lifters in stores is likely common

  • By Benjamin Skinner, April 9, 2013 @ 7:00 pm

    Definitely something to be careful about.

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