Identity theft is a big problem – for other people.
Then last week it happened to me, when I learned that someone, somewhere had lifted my Social Security number and used it to file a fraudulent tax return.
Thus began a strange journey into a world of law enforcement, government agencies and credit bureaus. Even as I pondered the theft of a number assigned to me at my birth, I quickly learned that what should have been a fairly major life event was merely a banal exercise in paperwork for everyone I encountered.
So great is the prevalence of identity theft these days, especially at tax time, that the atmosphere surrounding this crime is disturbingly casual. I might as well have been ordering lunch when talking to agencies about the shock of learning some pond scum was using my identity to score a tax refund.
My CPA discovered the fraud early in April, when he tried to e-file our return and it was kicked back. I was summoned to speak to him, and he gravely showed me an IRS error report stating that my income tax return, jointly filed with my spouse, had been rejected. A tax return with only my Social Security number already had been filed.
The CPA was experienced with this problem, and he reassured me everything would be fine, just fine, after I made a million phone calls and filled out a form and we re-filed our tax return, only this time through the mail. But he warned me the telephone calls would take a long time and I would probably be put on hold forever, or need to call back another day. Becoming frustrated or upset was not unusual, he said.
Later, I poured myself a fresh cup of coffee and started with Step 1: Calling the IRS fraud unit.
Fearing I could be on hold for days, years even, before ever speaking to a live IRS person, I prepared myself for the Long Wait.
I dialed the number and was placed on hold. For seven minutes. The IRS employee was friendly. (!) She listened to my story and then began asking questions.
While I verified my personal information with this government stranger, I blurted out, “And it’s my 24th wedding anniversary today, and I’m talking to the IRS!”
She chuckled and then joked, “OK, I’ll put that down, too.”
As per the rules, she could not give me any information about the fraudulently filed return. But she did tell me thieves usually file the return as soon as they obtain a Social Security Number. A clue!
Then she instructed me to fill out an Identity Theft Affidavit, otherwise known as Form 14039. She told me to send the form, plus our tax return, in the mail.
I proceeded to Step 2: Calling the world.
I was told to start with the police, so I telephoned the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office. I was routed to someone who took my information, and then I was told someone else would call me back. She did, in about eight minutes. The important step, after notifying the IRS, is to report the theft to law enforcement and obtain a police case number. The number needed to go on Form 14039.
With case number in hand, I then made my next critical call: The credit bureaus.
There are three, but my CPA told me I only needed to call one because the information would be shared with the other two bureaus, Experian and TransUnion. The call would put the bureaus on notice that my identity had been stolen.
I called Equifax. “Welcome to the Equifax Automated Fraud Assistance Service Center,” the computer voice droned.
Automated? I thought I would need to speak to a live person. Not the case here. Apparently, the problem is so widespread that a computer was going to do the intake on my catastrophe.
I listened to my options. “If you suspect you are a victim of fraud and would like to add an initial 90-day alert to your credit file, press 1.”
I figured this was my option, but I was curious about the other automated telephone options, so I listened further. Could I press 2 if my house was on fire, or 3 if space aliens had landed?
Alas, to my vague disappointment, the other options related to matters such as fraud involving military personnel, and so on. I logged my information after pressing 1, and then moved on to my final phone call, the Federal Trade Commission.
By now, it was well after 6 p.m, and I figured there would be no one picking up the line, or worse, I would spend the next 45 minutes on hold. Wrong again. The call was immediately answered by yet another helpful government employee. After giving her that all-important police case number, I also gave her the PBSO website and phone number.
She asked how much time I had spent working on my identity theft problem.
I suppose it was a standard government question, but I laughed. “An hour,” I said.
Then we started talking about how this could have happened. Wthin the past two months, I had shared my Social Security number with two new sources. One was a hospital and the other was a major national women’s retailer, for the purpose of reactivating an old store charge card.
The FTC official put down the name of the hospital and retailer as potential leads.
Then I was done. Our tax return, along with Form 14039, was mailed. The investigative process will be lengthy, and we will not see our tax refund for a long time. I don’t know if the feds will ever discover the perpetrator of this crime.
But I do know one thing: The process of reporting the fraud was quick, painless and surprisingly, drama-free.
In fact, it was alarmingly drama and hassle-free, which just goes to show you how bad the problem has become. The feds and law enforcement clearly are prepared for lots of calls, and tax return fraud is especially bad in Florida, police and government agencies told me.