Identity theft happens year round, but tax return filing season can be a prime time for scammers to obtain sensitive personal information that allows them to set up accounts, run up debts, apply for jobs, and even file tax returns under someone else's name.
The scams can come over the phone, e-mail, paper mail or even in person, but they have the same underlying message, said Mark Green, an Internal Revenue Service spokesperson.
Known as "phishing" scams, they indicate a person needs to release their social security number, bank account number, birth date or other sensitive information.
"Once that information is requested, it should automatically raise a red flag to the taxpayer," said Green.
The number of identity theft cases have increased from 15,442 reported to the Federal Trade Commission in 2006 to 20,782 in 2007.
This year, authorities are seeing scams centering around the economic stimulus package payments, according to Lt. Keith Crumb, an investigator with the Newton County Sheriff's Office.
"They'll call up a resident saying the checks are going to be sent soon and that they need to confirm some information," said Crumb, and then they'll ask for social security number and other sensitive information.
In another version, the scammers claim to be with the IRS calling to update some information.
"(The IRS) already has that information," said Crumb. "The IRS policy is to never ask personal information over the phone. If someone were to receive a phone call like that, they'd know immediately it was a scamster."
Crumb also described situations where individuals set up personal income tax services, particularly for low-income groups who might not have bank accounts. They prepare and send off the tax returns and use their own bank accounts to receive the refund, keeping part or all of the refund for themselves, he said.
"When you're talking about doing taxes, you're having to give up a great deal of personal information," said Julia Benson-Slaughter, computer science professor at Georgia Perimeter College who has studied the growing trend of identity theft. She pointed out 20 percent of ID theft cases were among people who knew each other, she said. "If you don't totally trust whoever's doing your taxes, then there's certainly potential for ID theft there."
Often, the elderly and other vulnerable groups are targeted because they may not be as tax and tech savvy, said Green.
"We do want to make sure the elderly are not left out but not taken advantage of," said Green, regarding the stimulus package.
To claim the stimulus payment, which can be $300 for an individual and $600 for a couple, residents must file tax-returns, even if they are retired. There is no fee for filing, said Green, and the IRS and a number of advocacy groups provide free assistance for filing taxes.
In Newton County, the AARP offers tax-filing help at the Newton County Library on Wednesdays and Fridays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., according to the AARP Georgia website.
Once someone is a victim of identity theft, the process of stopping the damage can be a long, frustrating one.
Even experts who work on stopping identity theft can find themselves a victim. Green, who was an agent of the IRS at the time, found out another man had been using his social security number to try and buy a $50,000 car. They were able to apprehend the man when he came to the dealership to sign for the car, but not all victims are so lucky.
One local resident, who preferred to remain anonymous, discovered her identity had been stolen when she received a tax-return check from the state of Georgia, even though she hadn't filed her tax return yet.
In a long process that involved endless calls and referrals, she was able to place alerts and holds on her accounts, and found out her imposter had filed a tax return from an H&R Block in Augusta. She thinks this person might have moved into her old apartment and received a piece of stray mail.
In the process of trying to track down information on the imposter, she found some organizations, like the IRS and H&R Block, very helpful, while other agencies, like Georgia's Department of Revenue, not as helpful.
"They made me feel like I had done something wrong," she said.
The process left her questioning authorities and institutions she used to trust automatically. "I feel insecure because someone has my information," she said.
If a person discovers they've had their identity or personal information stolen, a good place to start to find out what to do is the FTC Website, said Benson-Slaughter.
Victims should alert their banks and financial institutions, credit cards, all three credit bureaus - Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian - and all seven check-clearing houses, if the theft involves checks, she said. They should also report it to their local law enforcement agencies.
She recommended documenting and keeping notes on everything. Any mailed documents or contact should be sent by certified mail and return receipt requested.
But the best way to prevent ID theft is to be alert and be cautious of giving out personal information.
"If a particular request seems unusual, make sure you know why the individual is making the request," said Benson-Slaughter. "If it doesn't seem like a legitimate reason, find an alternative way."
If filing electronically, she recommended using a secure internet connection, which could be recognized by a closed padlock symbol or websites beginning with "https," and not using a wireless connection.
"Sitting at Starbucks doing your tax return is not a good idea," she said.
When choosing a tax preparation service, make sure it's been an organization that's been in business for a while and has good recommendations, said Benson-Slaughter. One place to check for complaints is the Better Business Bureau.
Even so, said Benson-Slaughter, "No matter how many precautions you can take you can become a victim anyway." But at least you can avoid becoming an easy target for scammers.
IRS: www.irs.gov, (800) 829-1040
FTC: www.ftc.gov, (877) 438-4338
ID theft resource center: www.idtheftcenter.org
Privacy Rights Clearinghouse: www.privacyrights.org
Better Business Bureau: www.us.bbb.org, (703) 276-0100
AARP Georgia: www.aarp.org/states/ga/, (866) 295-7281