After becoming a victim, I failed to keep good records and I ignored IRS mailings. More than four years later, my tax identity theft case still is unresolved—and my identity thief has again filed a return in my name.
How tax identity theft happens
Tax identity theft occurs when someone uses stolen personal information to file a tax return—either to reap the benefits of the refund or because he or she is using a stolen Social Security number (SSN) for employment. The IRS estimates that 1.6 million taxpayers were affected by tax identity theft in 2013 alone.
I lost my wallet in Dallas in 2006. Four years later, an employer in Amarillo, Texas, reported income under my SSN. My Social Security card was not in the wallet, but it’s likely that the thief had enough information from my driver’s license and other identification cards to get a job using my SSN.
When an employer reports income earned by a thief using your SSN, the IRS assumes that you have misreported your income (because you didn’t include those wages in your tax return) and applies taxes for the additional income. I received a $500 bill for taxes owed in 2010.
The top six mistakes I made as a victim of identity theft
Because I had never worked in Amarillo, I knew there was a mistake and tried contacting the IRS. Unfortunately, I was not well versed in reporting identity theft, and I made some errors during the process. If you have to defend your name against tax identity theft, here are six mistakes I made that you should avoid.
1. Not filing a police report about the identity theft.
When I discovered that I was a victim of identity theft, my tax preparer informed me that I had to prove my innocence. I spent weeks trying to contact the employer that had reported the income using my SSN, hoping that it was a simple mistake. Soon, I realized that the company either didn’t exist or wasn’t legitimate. I didn’t file a police report because I naively expected the IRS would discover that it was clearly a case of tax fraud.
If you’re a victim of tax identity theft, file a police report as soon as you can. It shows the government agencies that you’re serious about resolving the crime, and it’s very unlikely that you’ll be able to track down the identity thief yourself.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) provides a letter to law enforcement officials that you can print and give to the police. You should also bring a personal statement, any proof of the theft, a government-issued photo ID, and proof of your current address.
2. Not documenting phone calls.
I’ve had more conversations with the IRS than I can count—and that’s the problem. I don’t have an accurate log of when I called, the names of the people with whom I spoke, or what they instructed me to do. Because I receive different instructions almost every time, the next person I speak to will often ask the date I was told a specific piece of information—and I can’t give an exact answer.
Carefully document all your calls, including those to credit reporting agencies (CRAs) or your tax preparer. You will have exact records for your reference, and they may help your local taxpayer advocate resolve the case.
3. Not sending documents securely.
It’s likely that the IRS may not get your documentation the first time you send it. I mailed the Identity Theft Affidavit (IRS Form 14039) at least five times, only to be told that the IRS never received it, that my passport copies weren’t clear, or that I sent it to the wrong IRS department. It’s frightening to think of how many copies of my passport, Social Security card, and birth certificate are now floating around the postal system.
Make a copy of every document that you send, and mark the date you send it. You should also consider sending your documents by certified mail and asking for a return receipt to ensure the safety of your personal information.
4. Not following up with the IRS after notifying them I was an identity theft victim.
Early on, I assumed the IRS would let me know when it received my documents or if the status of my case changed. Instead, I would receive scary bills and notices of impending liens even though I had sent in the paperwork. The collections department is not always updated on the activity of the identity theft department, so IRS staff may continue to send you bills if you do not call consistently.
I’ve made a practice of calling the IRS at least once a month to obtain the status of my case. The hotline for unresolved identity theft cases is 800-908-4490.
5. Not requesting an identity protection PIN.
I was so bogged down by my case that I barely got my tax return in by the deadline the next year. Unfortunately, the employer reported wages connected to my SSN again in 2011.
If your case has not been resolved before tax season rolls around, it’s likely your information is still available. By requesting an identity protection PIN from the IRS, you will be assigned a six-digit number that may help prevent the misuse of your SSN on federal tax returns. You should also consider filing as early as possible in the next tax season; it increases the chance that you will get your refund before a thief does.
6. Not placing a fraud alert on my credit report.
If an identity thief has your information, a fraud alert may help you protect your credit history should the thief attempt to open a credit account in your name. If you suspect that you’ve been a victim of identity theft , you’re eligible to receive an initial fraud alert for 90 days on your credit report. With a fraud alert in place, a creditor is obligated to contact you to verify any credit request made using your name.
Organization and timely communication may help you resolve identity theft faster, but expect that it will require patience and persistence, too.
Camille Puschautz is a researcher, writer, and Web producer at Think Glink Media, with a background in print and digital media. Previously, Camille worked for Bloomberg News in New York and MediaTec Publishing in Chicago. She is a graduate of the University of Dallas and Northwestern University, where she received a master’s degree in journalism.