"It's like that game of Whac-A-Mole. When you're attacking one scheme, they come up with another," said Wifredo Ferrer, the U.S. attorney in south Florida, a hotspot for the schemes.
Fraudulent filers have evaded detection lately by getting refunds loaded onto prepaid debit cards instead of receiving them by check. Others have robbed postal workers to get refunds and even recruited mail carriers to take part, Ferrer said.
A former records clerk in Alabama's prisons department was charged in January with selling inmates' personal information to claim over $1 million in refunds. Three others were sentenced to prison for taking part, including a mail carrier who stole the refunds from the mail.
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"They're getting very creative by using people in the inside," Ferrer said. "They're creative and brazen. They're using the IRS like their own ATM."
The IRS said Thursday that it has started more than 200 investigations into identity theft and refund fraud schemes this filing season and that enforcement efforts are taking place nationwide. It said investigators are especially focused on the misuse of specialized identification numbers assigned to firms that electronically file tax returns.
But the ease of the schemes means no one is immune. The best steps to reduce the chance of refund fraud are to protect your Social Security numbers and other personal information.
The practice has spread to the most unlikely of places. Even employees and volunteers within the Archdiocese of Seattle became victims last month in a case that's still being investigated.
Because the goal of the IRS is to get refunds out quickly, it often sends them out before verifying wages and other income from employers and financial institutions. Victims don't know they've been targeted until they file their taxes.