ID thieves file your tax return, get your refund - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

ID thieves file your tax return, get your refund

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SAN DIEGO (CBS 8) - Instead of a refund check, many Americans are getting bad news from the IRS -- that someone else has already collected their money. It's part of a growing scam where thieves steal your identity, file for your taxes and take your refund.

You file your tax refund and surprise -- the IRS informs you someone else already filed under your Social Security number and got a huge refund.

"Unfortunately, a Social Security number is really the Holy Grail and they can commit all types of identity theft," Eva Velasquez of the Identity Theft Resource Center said.

Velasquez says this is a huge, expensive problem. The IRS confirms identity thieves stole $4 billion in bogus tax returns in 2012.

"And that's what we know of," she said.

The IRS says it's trying to become proactive, programming its computers to catch red flags before a refund is sent.

"It's become a complete top priority in terms of resources, putting employees there, putting all the screens and detectors and IT we have in place to try and prevent it, slow it down, detect it," IRS spokesman Raphael Tulino said.

The IRS says it caught $12 billion worth of fraudulent refunds last year before sending out money, but the thieves are tricky, creating bogus W-2s and maximizing deductions to get large, under-the-radar returns. In fact, last year, over one million bogus refunds still went out, including 655 to a single address in Lithuania and 580 to an address in Orlando.

"The best way to protect yourself is to file first and beat the crooks," Velasquez said.

Velasquez says the problem is that the IRS can only do so much when it comes to looking for potential red flags in a tax return.

"The IRS gets a snapshot of you once a year, and during that time frame things change -- people move, they change jobs, babies are born, there are divorces," she said.

The IRS says victims will get their money – eventually -- but definitely a lot later than someone who hasn't had their identity stolen.

"These cases take time. They can take several weeks, three to four months to untangle what's been done. Unfortunately, they're complex," Tulino said.

And while you're working to clear up the mess, the thieves are most likely one step ahead, plotting their next scam.

"Unfortunately, once you've been a victim of one type of ID theft, there really are no guarantees or protections you can put in place to stop the thieves from using the information in other areas," Velasquez said.

If you're a victim of this crime or any other identity theft, contact the Identity Theft Resource Center. It's a nonprofit that will help you for free.

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