E-Filing and the Explosion in Tax-Return Fraud
Identity-theft cases rocketed to 1.1 million in 2011 from 51,700 in 2008. The IRS has a backlog of 650,000.[A version of this article appeared January 14, 2013, on page A15 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal.]
Now that Americans finally know the tax rate they'll be paying, it's time to start thinking about the annual drudgery of filing their returns. It's also the season when identity thieves begin ripping off those returns and stealing billions in false or misdirected refunds. Tax fraud, amazingly, is now the third-largest theft of federal funds after Medicare/Medicaid and unemployment-insurance fraud.
Tax-identity theft exploded to more than 1.1 million cases in 2011 from 51,700 in 2008. The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration last summer reported discovering an additional 1.5 million potentially fraudulent 2011 tax refunds totaling in excess of $5.2 billion.
The General Accountability Office says that the "total extent of refund fraud using stolen identities is unknown." The problem is so overwhelming that IRS has quietly set a $100,000 threshold before investigating and prosecuting cases, initiating just 898 cases last year, with a dismal 223 convictions.
Why has identity theft rocketed through the Internal Revenue Service? Because American taxpayers, urged on by the IRS, have taken to filing their income-tax returns electronically and arranging for refunds to be directly deposited into bank accounts. E-filing is appealing because it provides an electronic postmark confirmation that the return was filed on time. When it is combined with direct deposit, a refund can arrive in as little as seven days. In 2012, 80% of individual returns were e-filed, fulfilling an initial goal Congress set in 1998. The result is an automated system in which the labor burden is transferred to the taxpayer.
E-filing contributes to tax complexity as the IRS demands ever more data for reporting of wage, interest and brokerage income with more tax forms. A discrepancy may result in a rejection code, a letter from the IRS Automated Underreporting Unit, or a computerized audit out of a centralized IRS office in Ogden, Utah. There's no cost to the IRS for requesting extra information when it's received electronically.
Targeting taxpayers for audit is a major factor behind the IRS's push for e-filing. E-filed returns are available for audit several months sooner than paper returns, allowing more time before the three-year statute of limitations expires. The IRS has even boasted that its e-file database is "a rich and fertile field" for selecting audits and has estimated that if its "screeners could be reallocated to performing audits, they could bring an additional $175 million annually."
Fraudulent tax returns can come in the form of tax-identity theft, refund fraud, or return-preparer fraud and are difficult to prosecute. With e-filing, evidence of fraud is difficult to find. There are no signed tax forms, envelopes or fingerprints, and e-filing promises quick refunds.
It's easy for criminals to e-file using a real name and Social Security number combined with a phony Form W-2 (wages) or fabricated Schedule C (business income). The refund can be posted to an anonymous "Green Dot" prepaid Visa or MasterCard purchased at a drugstore. Such cards have a routing and account number suitable for direct deposit. The IRS may even correct a fraudulent return to refund the estimated taxes that the real taxpayer already remitted, as happened to one of my victimized clients.
Another form of fraud is when an unscrupulous return preparer modifies the bank-routing information on a return so the direct-deposit refund will wind up in his own bank account. He might increase the deductions so a return will show a larger refund due, with only the increase routed to his bank account. The victim will know nothing unless the IRS sends an audit notice.
Other preparers have abused the return information of former clients to file false refund returns in subsequent years. Criminals have established physical offices and websites displaying names of major tax-preparation franchises in order to gain genuine return documents and signatures from unsuspecting victims.
The IRS will replace a lost or stolen refund check. However, a stolen refund using an altered or erroneous routing number on a tax return will generally not be refunded until the bank returns the funds to the IRS. Otherwise, the taxpayer's sole recourse is a lawsuit against the return preparer.
Millions of Americans now pay the IRS via an Electronic Federal Tax Payment System debit. Unlike ordinary creditors paid electronically, the IRS is in the business of sending refunds but it doesn't compare names on bank records against its own files. So, with just the routing information from a personal check, a skilled criminal can use the electronic tax-payment system to transfer funds from a victim's bank account as an estimated-tax payment to another stolen name and Social Security number, then file a refund claim transferring the stolen funds to his own account. (This can be prevented by having your bank place an "ACH debit block" on your account.)
Fraud is a major problem for states, too. Using TurboTax, a 25-year-old woman e-filed a fraudulent 2011 Oregon return reporting wages of $3 million and claiming a $2.1 million refundand the Oregon Department of Revenue sent her the refund. In October, a hacker stole 3.8 million unencrypted tax records from the South Carolina Department of Revenue. Georgia reports that 4% of its returns are fraudulent.
If you become a tax-identity theft victim, immediately seek a referral to the IRS Identity Protection Specialized Unit or the Taxpayer Advocate Service using Form 911. Keep in mind that it can take over a year to resolve. The IRS has a backlog of 650,000 cases.
The national taxpayer advocate has recommended that taxpayers be allowed to tell the IRS to accept their return only when filed on paper, thus preventing e-file tax-identity theft. So far the IRS has failed to allow this. Less effective methods are to request an "electronic filing PIN," available at www.irs.gov, and file Form 14039, "Identity Theft Affidavit," so that the IRS might apply additional return-screening procedures. Sadly, conventional credit-monitoring services are useless against income-tax identity theft.
In sum, e-filing helps the IRS with audit selection, costs the Treasury billions through fraud, and transfers many costs of tax administration to you.
A version of this article appeared January 14, 2013, on page A15 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal.