Congrats! You're a Partner with the IRS

Congrats! You're a Partner with the IRS

On March 19, 2015 IRS Commissioner, John Koskinen, brought together representatives from the IRS, the states, and the private sector tax industry in what he called the Security Summit Group to discuss ways to combat identity theft and, specifically, identity theft that results in tax fraud. Private sector representatives included the likes of CEOs of leading tax prep firms, software developers, and payroll processors. For the first two months, the SSG met “continuously” to collaborate and brainstorm. One of the ideas that has come out of these meetings is that there is no silver bullet for putting an end to identity theft and that we need to adopt a “multi-layered and coordinated approach.” Another big idea, announced by Koskinen in a statement yesterday, is that there is a key Security Summit partner that, until now, has been left out of the equation: YOU.

We’ve made a great deal of progress for the upcoming tax season, and it shows just how much we can accomplish working together. But to keep making progress, there is another partner we need to bring on board, and that’s the taxpaying public. In fact, that’s why we’re announcing this new effort, called “Taxes-Security-Together.” We all have a part to play in fighting identity theft.

Koskinen says that now is the best time to begin this new initiative. I’m paraphrasing here, but he basically says that there will be a bunch of new electronic devices bought over the next couple months (ok, Christmas time, I follow), and people will be doing their taxes and making other transactions on these devices (um, people do their taxes on phones? really?) and a significant number of these potential ID theft portals will fall into the hands of people who don’t know how to use them, and it behooves us to help them to use them safely. This seems like a really tenuous “slippery slope” kind of thought process here, but ok. Now I’m interested to know if identity theft typically spikes in December or something.

But, needless to say, it feels pretty awesome to be a member of the Security Summit Group. I’m waiting eagerly by the mailbox for my badge and lanyard. As a member in good standing of the SSG, I would like to commend the Commissioner on his Taxes-Security-Together initiative. It sounds like fun. However, I also would like him to tell me how he plans on getting these messages out to those who really need to hear them. I will prepare now for what promises to be a barrage of public service announcements via YouTube, Facebook, and wherever else the IRS has a presence. But if you’re not connected with the IRS online somehow, either by “liking” or “following” or subscribing to their emails, just how are you going to catch wind of these tips and announcements? And between a tax professional and the general public, who do you think would benefit most from hearing them? There is no one silver bullet, but at least some bullets should hit some targets for this initiative to be successful.

IRS Makes Plans with Private Sector to Curb Future Cyber Attacks

John Koskinen, Commissioner of the IRS, announced yesterday in a press conference that his agency is making plans to join forces with states and the entire private tax industry to combat cyber tax criminals like the ones who recently accessed taxpayer data through the “Get Transcript” application of the IRS website.  It’s the whole “it takes a village” concept applied to the ongoing battle to protect sensitive information on the internet. Government and industry plan to share information in ways they have never done before.

As a tax relief attorney, I don’t know a lot about computers and information technology.  If the top level guys at the IRS are IT ninjas, I’m probably a yellow belt noodle maker.  But commingling of IRS and private sector data makes me nervous, if that’s what they’re talking about doing.  I understand the desire to cooperate on this monumental task of stopping international cyber-criminal syndicates, but I feel like a little separation between public and private sector computer systems is healthy.  It seems to my naive mind that the more connected they are, in the event of a large-scale hack, the more likely we all go down together.

Here are a few nice words from Koskinen’s press conference:

[A]ny organization in the public or private sectors with IT systems and sensitive data faces a battle that seems to grow every day. The nation’s tax system is no different….No single organization can go it alone….None of us has a silver bullet to defeat this enemy….Working together we can achieve results that none of us, working alone, could accomplish.

Such an American thing to do, don’t you think?  Everyone joining forces and working together to defeat a common enemy and prevent a crisis.  I hope this is a step in the right direction and not just the IRS telling us what we want to hear.  The upside to all this for the IRS is that the next time their systems are compromised, maybe they can share the blame with businesses and states.

Protect Yourself Against Identity Theft

Identity theft can be a huge headache, especially when it affects your federal tax record.  There are at least a couple ways how that might happen.  An identity thief may use your personal identifying information, including your social security number, to file a false tax return and obtain a fraudulent refund.  Or a thief may use your identity to obtain a job, claim the maximum number of exemptions, and basically collect tax-free income.  Then, these W-2 wages are reported to the IRS under your social security number.  When the information on your legitimate tax return does not match up with the W-2s the IRS has on file (i.e., when you fail to report the income earned by the identity thief) then the IRS sends you a letter asking you to explain the discrepancy.

The IRS provides a comprehensive list of tips for those whose identity has been stolen.  However, some of their most useful tips explain how to avoid identity theft in the first place. What it all comes down to is safeguarding your personal and financial information, including your credit cards, social security number, even address.

Some identity thieves steal wallets and purses.  Protect your personal effects when you carry them around and never leave them in open sight in your vehicle.  Never leave a bag or purse unattended in a store or airport.  It is human nature to misplace small items such as these, but we tend to be very habitual in the handling of our wallets and purses.  The more safe habits we can acquire, the better, so that it becomes second nature to protect our personal effects.

Some identity thieves try to obtain information from you through a phone call or electronic means (especially emails).  The IRS has issued extensive and repeated warnings regarding phony IRS emails and phone calls.  The IRS has made it abundantly clear that they do not contact taxpayers through email and they do not request credit card information over the phone.  It is actually really easy to identify a phony IRS contact if you know what to look for, but very easy to be deceived if you don’t.

Some identity thieves sift through your trash.  Once you take your trash out to the curb, it is easy to consider it “gone,” but that is usually the point at which the identity thief just begins his work.  The idea here is to take steps to destroy identifying information before you throw it in the trash can.  Invest in a good quality shredder and make a habit of shredding anything with your name on it.

Some identity thieves obtain your information through unsecured websites.  Do not share your personal and/or financial information on obscure, unknown websites that cannot be trusted.  If you’re making purchases online, stick with the big time, well known websites like Amazon, eBay, and nationwide retailers.  If you ever have a question as to whether a website can be trusted, do a quick Google search of the company or, better yet, just move along to something else.

Direct Deposit Refund Rule: New for 2015

Nowadays almost everybody files their Federal Tax Returns electronically.  The IRS has encouraged e-filing for many years now.  It’s a win-win because the IRS can process electronic returns very rapidly and the filer is happy to avoid the delay and uncertainty of snail mail.  Similarly, most people who are due a refund elect to have that refund directly deposited into their bank account rather than having a paper check mailed to them.

Beginning in January 2015, there will be new direct deposit limits that the tax refund folks should keep in mind.  The IRS is limiting the number of electronic / direct deposit refunds that can be deposited into a single account.  The magic number is three.  The reason the IRS is limiting directly deposited refunds to three per account is to hopefully curtain fraudulent refunds which tend to come flooding into a thief’s account one after another.

Two refunds deposited into the same account is probably fairly common: I am imagining a married couple who file separately but share a bank account.  A little odd maybe, but not suspicious either.  Three refunds deposited into the same account is somewhat less common, I am sure.  But some families with adult children may fall into this category.  The IRS has drawn the line at three because it is hard to imagine a scenario where there would be too many more than three people who would chose to receive separate refunds in the same bank account.

The IRS says that the fourth refund in a scenario such as this would be sent as a paper check, and those wishing to avoid this result would need to use a different account.

Manteca Tax Cheat Files Lien Against IRS Commissioner

There was a story I saw in the Modesto Bee recently about a Manteca woman who pleaded guilty to defrauding the IRS out of about $313,000.  It is not really your typical refund fraud case in the sense that the more popular strategy involves preparing a series of false refund returns claiming smaller amounts.  All the returns together may add up to a small fortune, but no single refund claim appears right away to be anything out of the ordinary.  The Manteca woman wasn’t patient enough for the “slow drip” method apparently; she went all in.  And she lost big time.

Esther Robertson, 57, faces up to 5 years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000.  It is not mentioned in the Modesto Bee story, but typically the fine is in addition to the restitution aspect of the sentencing, which involves the taxpayer paying back what was stolen.  Robertson will have a lot of time to stress about the possible outcome since her sentencing is not expected until September 2015.

Court papers also indicate that, in February 2009, after the IRS was onto her, they issued a bank levy to try to recoup at least some of what was taken.  Then Robertson did something that I’m not sure I quite understand.  Presumably in an act of retaliation, she filed a lien against the property of the IRS Commissioner!  This certainly shows her contempt for the IRS, or the federal government, or both.

There are a number of questionable websites and online sources that claim to cite legal authority for filing a criminal suit against the IRS for taking one’s property.  I won’t link to any of these sites because I don’t really have a beef with them but, trust me, there are hundreds of them.  These are the same sites that are managed by tax protestors who believe taxation is illegal and the IRS has no legal authority to collect taxes.  My guess is that Robertson found  something online about filing a lien against the Commissioner of the IRS and she thought she would give it a try.  She probably didn’t have much to loose at that point either, knowing that the IRS had discovered her foul play and it was only a matter of time before she would be getting a visit from Criminal Investigations.  For Robertson’s sake, I hope this doesn’t count against her during sentencing.

EIN Refund Fraud

Tax Refund Fraud.  We’ve seen this happening across the nation in a variety of communities.  The fraudster demographic is also quite diverse: some perpetrators are operating from within experienced fraud rings, some are regular street criminals (or inmates), some are even IRS insiders.

Most people are probably aware of individual refund fraud, which involves the filing of a false tax return using a stolen Social Security Number in hopes of obtaining a refund.  Many of these schemes are built upon the idea that the IRS doesn’t bat an eye if the requested refund is small enough.  And fraudsters can get pretty rich if they file in bulk.

But did you know that the same thing is happening with EIN numbers?  An Employer Identification Number is used to identify business accounts.  People steal them and obtain them fraudulently just like they do with social security numbers.  The statistics are staggering: “277,624 stolen EINs used to report false income and withholding on 752,656 tax returns with potentially fraudulent refunds issued totaling more than $2.2 billion” (2011 numbers).  The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) released a report this week asking the IRS to do more to prevent EIN refund fraud.

It’s Who You Know

Federal tax refund fraud is a growing problem that has the IRS on its toes.  Over the past few years the IRS has intensifyied its efforts to combat refund fraud, but it has been a challenge for the IRS to keep pace.

Some tax criminals are unsophisticated, inexperienced solo operations that are just not very good at what they do.  These are the people we end up reading about in the news after IRS Criminal Investigation nails them.  The more successful tax fraud schemes involve multiple moving parts, or so they think.  For example, when the unsophisticated, inexperienced individual fraudster is well-connected — if he has the right kind of friends — he believes that his potential for swindling the government will increase exponentially.

And if one of his connections happens to be a banker, then he thinks he’s golden.  Hilda Josephine Hernandez-McMullen, a former employee of Wells Fargo Bank, pleaded guilty to seven felony counts of bank fraud.  She admitted to assisting members of an identity theft and tax fraud ring that had sought $25 million in false refunds.  She opened bank accounts for people knowing the information provided to her was inaccurate and she cashed fraudulent checks totalling about $38,000.

Ten members of the fraud ring were charged, and Hernandez-McMullen herself is looking at 30 years in prison for each count of bank fraud if she receives the maximum sentence.  Not so golden afterall…

Wal-Mart and the EITC

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is a refundable federal income tax credit that was first offered to taxpayers back in 1975 to help prevent low income families from slipping into poverty.  EITC can mean tax relief (lower taxes) for some and a tax refund (cash in pocket) for others.  When EITC exceeds the amount of tax owed, it results in a tax refund for those who qualify.  As you can imagine, the EITC is one of the tax provisions that is most susceptible to fraud.

Most people who file early expect a tax refund, often due to EITC claims.  Apparently Wal-Mart stores possess a key indicator of how many EITC claims are being made each tax season.  So far this year Walmart’s numbers are low.  Wal-Mart stores have cashed a mere $1.7 billion in refund checks so far this year compared to $3 billion this time last year.

The reason why Wal-Mart’s numbers are off is actually two-fold.  First, the start of tax season was delayed this year, and a whole week’s worth of tax refund checks could add up to at least another $1 billion or so.  Second, and more importantly, the IRS is reviewing as many EITC claims as possible this year to try to identify fraudulent claims.  However, according to the IRS no more than 5 percent of EITC claims are being delayed.

An IRS January Tradition

On Thursday the IRS announced a massive nation-wide identity theft crackdown, and I believe I’m starting to see a pattern now. Around the end of December each year we tend to get together with our extended families to drink eggnog, decorate trees, exchange gifts, and engage in various other annual family traditions. Well, the IRS appears to have a tradition of its own, although far less jolly than ours. Each January the IRS gets together with the Department of Justice and the US Attorney to sweep the nation for tax cheats — not exactly the kind of party you want to be invited to.

Here are the results of this years’ festivities:

  • the “sweep” involved 32 states and 215 cities
  • 734 enforcement actions (2,400 total in fiscal year 2012)
  •  109 arrests
  • 189 indictments
  • 47 search warrants
  • visits to 197 money service businesses (i.e., check cashing joints)

Read about specific cases here.

There is no doubt the IRS is strengthening its identity theft prevention and prosecution efforts.  Last year there were only 69 indictments and 58 arrests.  Sentencings are also on the rise, and jail times are getting longer.

The IRS is spending an unprecedented amount of resources on identity theft.  Perhaps the best evidence is the dramatic increase in criminal identity theft investigations:

  • 276 criminal identity theft investigations started in 2011
  • 898 criminal identity theft investigations started in 2012
  • 560 criminal identity theft investigations started so far in 2013

I’m not sure how they would do it, but the IRS could probably do a better job publishing this information and these stats.  It’s great that they’re stepping up efforts to punish identity theives, and the timing is perfect (right as people begin getting their taxes done), but if it’s only the tax attorneys and other tax professionals who are in the know, I would consider it a big opportunity lost.

TIGTA Reports on Refund Fraud by Prisoners

One of the chronic problems at the IRS is they keep issuing refunds to criminals.  Refund fraud (a criminal form of tax relief) is a widespread issue reaching all the way into our country’s prisons.  Most people would probably be shocked to know how common refund fraud is in prison.

The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) has carefully studied this problem over the past seven years and the data shows things are not getting better.

In calendar year 2004, there were 18,103 fraudulent tax returns filed by prisoners and the IRS handed out $13.4 million in refunds to them.  In 2007, there were 37,447 fraudulent tax returns filed by prisoners and the IRS paid out $29.2 million.  The most recent data is from 2010 and it shows that there were a staggering 91,434 fraudulent tax returns filed from prison.  The IRS paid $35.2 million that year.  But to be fair, they also prevented $757.6 million worth of refunds (identifying them as fraudulent before the damage was done).

In a new study, TIGTA explains how the “Prisoner File” which the IRS relies on to help them vet out bad refund claims is often innacurate and incomplete.  Furthermore, the rules allowing certain communications between the Treasury and the Federal Bureau of Prisons have expired.  Given the statistical trend of this tax problem, it obviously should be an area of focus for our government in coming years.