August 21, 2014

How to Avoid IRS Trouble Due to Identity Theft

irs trouble

In September 21, 2012, an Arizona woman was sentenced to 3 years in prison for identity theft, and ordered to pay nearly $400,000 in restitution.  She had used stolen identities to file 180 tax returns.   She tried to hide her tracks by filing the tax returns electronically using the unsecured wireless networks of her neighbors.  Then she recruited her friends and had the refunds (in the form of prepaid debit cards) sent to their addresses.

And that, my friends, is the anatomy of an identity theft.

The above example was provided in testimony by an IRS official before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

As you complete your tax returns this tax season, identity theft may be the last thing on your mind — but you should be aware of the potential risks.

It’s bad enough if someone steals your identity or your business’s identity, and racks up charges on your credit cards or takes out loans in your name.  But you could find yourself in a pickle with the IRS, too, potentially incurring unnecessary tax liability. Then you’d have a tax mess to clean up, including  extra expenses to pay an attorney to represent your interests.

You see, income you didn’t earn could be reported to the IRS.  Who’s going to pay the taxes on that income you never received, but the fraudster got?

Or a second (incorrect) tax return could be filed for you and your business.  If you are due a tax refund, it could be delayed or never get to you, because it ends up somewhere else.

And if you and your family receive any Federal benefits, those could be reduced, because another government agency may get information from the IRS suggesting your income went up (when it really didn’t).

The IRS says it has 3,000 employees working on identity theft cases.

It’s easy to hate the IRS, but the agency is required to be a watchdog of taxpayer funds.  If refunds are paid out in error due to fraud, ultimately those are losses the American taxpayer may have to eat.  So if the IRS can cut down on losses from identity theft, it benefits everyone (except the criminals!).

Steps to Take If You Suspect Identity Fraud

Take these steps to protect yourself and your business from identity theft — before or after the fact:

Protect and Avoid

  • Perform a credit check on yourself and your business at least once a year to see if unauthorized loans or credit cards have been taken out.
  • Protect your financial information, especially your social security number or EIN number.  Don’t give it out over the phone or in an email unless you are absolutely sure there’s a legitimate reason.
  • Protect your computers and mobile devices (personal and company-issued) from phishing and malware. Otherwise, your financial information could end up in the wrong hands.

Scrutinize and Report

  • Scrutinize every 1099, W-2 or other information filing you receive from third parties.  Don’t just file them away or hand them to your tax preparer. Don’t recognize the payer?  It could be a sign of fraud.  For example, here at Small Business Trends a few years ago, we received a false 1099 — and narrowly avoided another fraud situation.  You see, fraud has been dogging affiliate marketing.  Fraudsters will set up affiliate accounts (from offshore) under the name of legitimate websites in the U.S., and siphon off the income.  The company having the  affiliate program reports the income to the IRS under the victim-business’s name. Then you as the website owner get a 1099 reporting income you never received – ugh!
  • If you receive a tax form from anyone you don’t recognize, immediately write to the payer, via certified mail.  Tell the payer you believe you were a victim of identity fraud and did not receive the income attributed to you.  Ask them to investigate and correct their records.  Also, consider attaching an explanation to your tax return as to why you did not include the “income” on your return.
  • Call the IRS identity theft hotline at  800-908-4490, extension 245.  The IRS says it will take steps to “secure your tax account and match your SSN or ITIN.”  The IRS has been piloting a program to match taxpayers with their tax ID numbers, to tackle fraud.
  • Fill out the IRS Identity Theft Affidavit, Form 14039 (PDF).
  • Report the fraud to the FTC’s identity fraud hotline: 877-438-4338
  • Report it to local police.
  • Report it to the 3 main credit reporting agencies:
    • Equifax – 800-525-6285
    • Experian – 888-397-3742
    • TransUnion – 800-680-7289
  • For your business, add to that list Dun and Bradstreet.  The iUpdate feature allows you to update information about your business credit.
  • Talk with your attorney and/or tax preparer – before reporting to anyone.   They can advise you on what to do and how to communicate so that you are perceived as blameless as possible (how we communicate in legal situations can avoid unnecessary grief later).

The IRS offers additional tips here.

Fraud Photo via Shutterstock

2 Comments ▼

Anita Campbell - CEO


Anita Campbell Anita Campbell is the Founder and Publisher of Small Business Trends and has been following trends in small businesses since 2003. She is the owner of BizSugar, a social media site for small businesses, and also serves as CEO of TweakYourBiz.com.

2 Reactions

  1. This excellent advice. I use all three of the agencies listed and stagger my reports because the free reports are only ‘free’ once a year. This way I can get a report more than once a year. I start at freecreditreport.gov (NOT the dot com – use .gov) and that gives the authorized information. The Free credit reports can be ordered at annualcreditreport.com. Users are not asked to provide a credit card number or use any payment method at all. Free in this case really does mean free.

  2. That’s right. Security is now more important than ever. That’s why if you can keep all the confidential information to yourself, you should do that. I never realized that it can also impact your tax too. That can be a problem that’s quite hard to get out.

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