An unwelcome return for tax scams


When Becky Wittrock tried to file her taxes in March 2015, she was told a return had already been filed in her name the month before. The South Dakotan was one of a surging number of Americans to fall victim to scams in which fraudsters try to steal other people’s tax refunds by filing phony, inflated returns on their behalf.

But this year was supposed to be different: In January, the Internal Revenue Service mailed Wittrock – along with 2.7 million other taxpayers – a six-digit identity-protection personal identification number, or IP PIN, that she was supposed to use to ensure that only she could electronically file on her behalf.

But when Wittrock tried to file her taxes, there were problems once again. On Monday, the IRS help line told her that someone had filed a return using her IP PIN on Feb. 2, she said.

And more, according to Wittrock, the IRS representative told her the agency had heard from other people about similar cases.

IRS Commissioner John Koskinen called the issue a “relatively minor problem” that has only affected a “handful” of filers thus far, but acknowledged that it could be frustrating for people such as Wittrock.

“We understand that, for those taxpayers, this is a significant aggravation. By definition, they got an IP PIN in the first place because they’d been the victim of identity theft,” Koskinen said.

But Wittrock and others who rely on the IP PINs to secure their online tax returns may have been easier to victimize again because of the way the tax agency allows people to retrieve the numbers online, according to cybercrime blogger Brian Krebs – who first reported on Wittrock’s situation.

If someone has lost their IP PIN, there is an online tool that can help them get it back. It requires some basic personal information, including name, date of birth, Social Security number, last filing status and the mailing address from the last tax return, but also uses information from the person’s credit report to ask “knowledge-based authentication” questions – things such as past addresses or mortgage payments.

Only a very small fraction of taxpayers with IP PINs have used the online retrieval tool, according to Koskinen – although he did not know the exact number.

The agency said it has flagged less than 200 potentially fraudulent tax filings involving IP PINs and successfully stopped refunds from being issued in the majority of these cases. But now, every tax refund filed with an IP PIN that has been retrieved online is receiving extra scrutiny, Koskinen said.

As for Wittrock, she is unsure how her information fell into the hands of scammers last year. “You feel totally invaded. You have no idea what’s going to happen to you next,” she said.

But there is at least one silver lining: Wittrock said she was able to file her 2015 return in person at an IRS office this week and was told that the fraudulent refund from this year had not been sent out yet – a sign it may have been caught by another layer of the agency’s fraud filters.