Bay area taxpayers say they are victims of identity theft
Dozens of Tampa Bay taxpayers had problems filing their tax returns this year because someone apparently beat them to it. The taxpayers say others used their names and Social Security numbers to file tax returns and get a refund. "The day after we filed, we got a call from our tax preparer saying that it kicked it back in the system because it showed that I had already filed," said Asmina Mobley. The new mom says she and her husband filed the day after someone else did. They are still waiting for their real refund.In an email to News Channel 8 this week, the IRS acknowledged the growing problem. "Unfortunately we are seeing an increase in identity theft cases, including more complex and sophisticated schemes," the statement said. The IRS said it stopped nearly 117,000 identity theft returns and "protected more than $582 million from getting into the wrong hands" this year. Though the IRS said it stops "the vast majority of fraudulent refund claims," it has not said how much money was dispersed under false pretenses. Efforts to stop fraudulent refunds from getting out now appear to be taking place in local neighborhoods, where letter carriers are flagging suspicious refund checks and debit cards and returning them to their supervisors. "I see a lot of income tax checks going to my customers that don't belong to my customers," said Pete Green, who has been a letter carrier since 1994. Carriers such as Green know the neighborhoods where they deliver mail each day – and they know when something doesn't look right, like checks with an unfamiliar name on it going to a home on their routes. Postal officials said they are limited in what they can say about the issue because of a joint investigation between the IRS and the postal inspector's office. "Our job is to take criminal misuse out of the mail, things that don't belong in the mail, people who use the mail for criminal purpose. It's our job to weed that stuff out," said Tampa Postal Inspector Doug Smith. Smith declined to talk about the volume of suspicious tax-related items they see, but said that when they come across them, they contact the IRS, which picks them up. At least two dozen taxpayers contacted News Channel 8 with similar stories of identity theft and the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office says it forwarded 97 complaints to the Internal Revenue Service as of Tuesday. In a confusing twist in the Tampa Bay area, a glitch appears to have sent some fraudulent refunds – in the thousands of dollars -- to the identity theft victims themselves. Some said it was an incorrect routing number that caused the money to go to their address. One man said he was told the check was cut because someone was trying to load too many tax refunds onto a debit card. The checks are from a bank, not the Treasury, and were issued in connection with electronic tax returns filed using sites such as taxslayer.com and turbotax.com. Bewildered about the checks, which carried their name and amounts as much as $9,000, the taxpayers say they contacted the IRS, which confirmed the refunds had been issued. Other taxpayers say they haven't received a check, but – like Mobley – found out about the problem when they tried to file their taxes. The problem, highlighted in a string of News Channel 8 reports, has gotten the attention of Florida's U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. "We've got to stop this nonsense," said Nelson, who says he now plans to hold a hearing on the issue with the financial responsibility subcommittee. Previously, the Democratic senator contacted the IRS after hearing about multiple cases in the Bay area and asked officials to investigate. In its statement to News Channel 8, the IRS called preventing identity theft a top priority at the IRS and said it is working with other federal agencies to examine the issue and the best courses of action to combat it. In an interview this week, Nelson said the IRS is "realizing this is a major problem."