BETWEEN THE LINES: With technology continuing to progress at a steady clip, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies regularly alert the public about a parallel surge of electronic crimes related to computers, handheld gadgets and the internet, such as identity theft and phishing (fishing for personal information via suspicious emails).
In recent years, the number of identity theft incidents, due to the annual increase in E-filing of tax returns, has jumped during tax season and has reached new levels in 2012. Last year, the IRS reported more than 260,000 suspicious returns totaling more than $1.4 billion, which was discovered before it reached the wrong taxpayers. This year, so far, two million returns have been flagged for investigation.
In a nationwide crackdown, the IRS stepped up suspected identity thefts as the tax season began in January and said it investigated more than 100 people in 23 states.
Even so, the crime persists. Regrettably, I found out first-hand.
Until now, I was never a victim of identity theft or any E-crime. But last week, out of the blue, when I electronically filed my federal return I was jolted when it was rejected with following notice:
“The primary SSN in this return is equal to the primary SSN in another return filed for the same tax year.”
This fast growing E-crime occurs when stolen Social Security numbers are used to fraudulently file federal taxes with refunds due. The thieves, according to what an IRS investigator told me, usually work for criminal enterprises that train people to abet them. Of course, it can only succeed when a taxpayer hasn’t filed. However, if the stolen SSN is used by a thief, when the appropriate individual does attempt to E-file, the second return is flagged with a similar message noted above and an investigation is initiated to determine which one is valid.
While exploring my status, I learned from IRS personnel that this type of fraud has reached “epidemic” proportions this tax season. Luckily, I uncovered my dilemma before I suffered any loss.
After checking my credit status, which was not affected, I followed procedures suggested by the IRS to protect my finances, including contacting the Federal Trade Commission’s fraud department, which immediately put a 90-day fraud alert on my credit card and bank accounts.
Nevertheless, I checked the status of each of my credit/debit card accounts, which turned out to be unexpectedly fortunate.
In an episode unrelated to my federal tax ID theft, I discovered one account was closed because someone tried to use it for a $1.00 transaction. I learned that E-criminals often use that method to determine if a cardholder recognizes or ignores it. The credit card fraud investigator said that when a transaction for a small amount goes unnoticed, the E-thief usually feels safe enough to charge costlier items to that account.
Luckily, my credit card bank was aware of the tactic and immediately robocalled for verification. However, I hung up before realizing its intent, as I find robocalls annoying. I would have only discovered the problem if I tried to use that card, which was red-flagged after the disconnect.
Around the time I put an alert on my accounts, it was reported that Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, one of the richest men in the world, was a victim of identity theft. An AWOL soldier was identified as the suspect and arrested last Wednesday.
When I read about that, I thought if a billionaire — who, more than likely, has the ultimate high-tech protection — isn’t safe from identity theft, how can the rest of us avoid being victims?
Despite years of warnings and numerous efforts to educate the public, as well as countless safeguards, we’re still vulnerable to E-thieves. Besides, there are those, particularly senior citizens and naïve college students, who, all too often, readily give up personal information or make it accessible to those who end up stealing identities and, sometimes, life savings.
If you haven’t learned by now, here’s a quick refresher: Never provide personal information, like Social Security numbers or birth dates to someone claiming they represent what sounds like a legitimate organization if you’re suspicious of the caller. Hang up and call the business or company yourself to verify if they’re seeking such data.
There’s a myth of sorts that once you’ve been a crime victim the odds decrease that you’ll be victimized by that crime again. I have no idea how true that is, but after my recent incidents, I hope I’m not a crime statistic anytime soon.
Nevertheless, I’ll be more alert to identity theft than previously. Basically, there was nothing I could have done to prevent either situation, except, as a few people suggested, file soon after the tax filing season begins. I always closely examine my credit card invoices and check the receipts against posted transactions, but, from now on, I’m more likely to check online once in a while to see if any suspicious charges exist.
Two incidents are enough to make me more cautious and more conscientious of the state of my finances. Even if it’s never happened to you, I suggest following a similar path to prevent close encounters of the E-kind.
Neil S. Friedman is a veteran reporter and photographer, and spent 15 years as an editor for a Brooklyn weekly newspaper. He also did public relations work for Showtime, The Rolling Stones and Michael Jackson. Friedman contributes a weekly column called “Between the Lines” on life, culture and politics in Sheepshead Bay.