Pilot program targeting tax fraud progresses
TAMPA - Authorities are moving forward with a plan to allow the IRS to share some information with law enforcement agencies investigating tax refund fraud. Federal, state and local law enforcement officials met on Thursday with the Internal Revenue Service to talk about a proposed pilot program in which the IRS would seek waivers from identity theft victims to allow the federal government to share fraudulent tax returns filed in their names. The pilot program was announced last month at a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing centered on the explosion of tax refund fraud among street criminals who are stealing personal information and using it to file bogus tax returns. Investigators say the fraud has bilked federal taxpayers out of hundreds of millions of dollars in the Tampa area and billions nationwide. Local police have been frustrated for months that the IRS is prohibited by law from sharing tax return information. For example, if police find drug suspects in possession of ledgers of names, Social Security numbers and dates of birth as well as Treasury checks or debit cards in the names of the people in the ledgers, they are unable to obtain copies of the fraudulently filed tax returns needed to prove the money was stolen.Steven T. Miller, IRS deputy commissioner for services and enforcement, told a subcommittee run by Florida's U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, that the IRS has developed a "work-around" in which the agency will take some of the names and Social Security numbers recovered by police and track down the taxpayers whose identities were stolen. The IRS plans to ask some of the taxpayers to sign waivers allowing the agency to share the bogus tax returns with law enforcement to be used as evidence against the suspected criminals. "It is not a substitute for our unfettered ability to share with local law enforcement," Miller said during the hearing. "We treat and Congress has treated tax returns as sacrosanct, as truly needing protection." Miller said he hoped the pilot program would start in the Tampa area. Among agencies represented last week at the meeting about the program was the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. Spokesman Larry McKinnon said nothing has been finalized, but he thinks the program is on a fast track. "We're working really well with the IRS," he said. "We're all aware of the urgency of trying to remove the roadblocks that we all face because of federal confidentiality laws and tax returns." IRS spokeswoman Julianne Breitbeil wouldn't discuss the specifics of the program. "We're continuing to work on this," she said, "but we're still in the early stages."
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