Residents should be aware of tax-related identity theft

Tax season officially kicked off this week with the IRS accepting returns from filers.

Plenty of time remains for those procrastinators who prefer to file when the deadline rolls around — April 17 marks that date this year. But with the Equifax hack and similar opportunities for thieves to access the personal information of millions, it may pay off to file early to safeguard any refund that might be due.

Tax-related identity theft occurs when a person’s Social Security number is used by someone else for the purpose of claiming a refund to which they have no rights. Victims often discover the fraud after they receive a notice from the IRS that states their Social Security number was used on more than one tax return filed in a single year or the agency’s records show there was income from an unknown employer.

The Federal Trade Commission this week reported some encouraging news on that front. The number of tax-related identity theft complaints filed in 2017 made up 22 percent of 371,157 identity-theft complaints, down from 33 percent of the 399,223 complaints filed the previous year.

The agency also reported a decline in the number of scam artists who call taxpayers and threaten them with arrest or large fines unless an immediate payment is made. The 56,065 complaints involving these so-called IRS impostors in 2017 represent a 54 percent decline from the previous year.

“We’ll have to wait to see if the declines turn into long-term trends,” said Seena Gressin, an FTC Consumer and Business Education Division lawyer, while promoting a public awareness campaign intended to combat these crimes. “In the meantime, you can be sure of this: The more you know about tax-related identity theft and IRS imposter scams, the better your chance of avoiding them.”

While the prevalence of tax-related identity theft appears to be waning, the Internal Revenue Service warns “taxpayers to remain vigilant to scams as they continue to be reported around the country.” Thieves often target those who are impacted by disaster — natural or otherwise — and vulnerable populations.

“These scams evolve over time and adjust to reflect events in the news, but they all typically are variations on a familiar theme,” IRS Commissioner John Koskinen states in a media release addressing the topic. “Recognizing these schemes and taking some simple steps can protect taxpayers against these con artists.”

In an effort to combat this crime, the IRS offers tips for taxpayers, tax professionals and businesses:

• Taxpayers are urged to use security software with firewall and anti-virus protections, keep it turned on, and set it to update automatically. Sensitive files stored on computers should be encrypted, and a unique password created for each account.

• Taxpayers should familiarize themselves — and learn to recognize and avoid — phishing emails, threatening calls and text messages sent by thieves posing as legitimate organizations. Do not click on links or attachments in suspicious email messages or those from unknown senders.

• Taxpayers should protect personal data — treat it like cash, and don’t leave it lying around.

• Tax professionals are encouraged to review security features and exercise due diligence while protecting client data.

• Businesses and other organizations are urged to combat identity theft by helping educate employees — especially payroll and human resources workers — clients and customers.

• Businesses that retain sensitive financial data also should review and update security plans.

Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901, @dsmootMPhx or

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A dog was ‘approved’ for $360 per week in unemployment benefits

It’s not always easy to find work.

Just ask Ryder — he was apparently laid off from his job at a restaurant chain in Michigan. So the state approved him for $360 per week in unemployment benefits.

Just one problem: He’s a dog.

“So my dog Ryder gets approved for unemployment benefits of 360 per week,” Ryder’s owner, Michael Haddock, wrote on Facebook, according to ABC affiliate WZZM.

He added: “Not sure what he is going to do with the money but should be interesting. I knew he was clever but he surprised me on this one.”

[ The economic boom is all well and good. But spreading its benefits to everyone will take serious work. ]

Haddock, an attorney in Saugatuck, Mich., told WZZM that he received a letter last weekend from the State of Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency addressed to his dog — sort of.

It was sent to “Michael Ryder.”

“My name is Michael; my dog is Ryder,” Haddock told the station. “I was surprised to see it, but I had a good laugh, actually.”

But the mix-up may not be so comical.

Michigan UIA announced earlier this week that it is putting together a special team to catch phony claims, according to reports.

There’s also the issue of identity theft. In 2014, 17.6 million U.S. residents older than 16 had their identities stolen, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

“Due to criminals stealing data from a number of different places — Equifax, other places where this has happened over the last few years — criminals are now using that information to file for unemployment benefits, and the IRS is running into the same problem with tax refunds. That’s how this starts,” Michigan UIA spokesman Chris DeWitt told WWJ Newsradio 950.

The Oakland County Sheriff’s Office confirmed to The Post that someone named Michael Ryder filed a police report Wednesday claiming possible identity theft.

The letter from Michigan UIA stated that Michael Ryder had worked for Kruse and Muer, an upscale seafood restaurant chain in Michigan. He was approved for 20 weeks of unemployment benefits at $360 per week, it stated.

A spokeswoman for the restaurant chain would not immediately comment on the situation.

Haddock said he called UIA to sort it out. “I felt like back in school when I would tell the teacher that the dog ate my assignment,” he told WZZM. “I don’t think the risk management person really believed what I was telling her, and she just asked me to scan the document and send it to her.”

Ultimately, the claim was denied, and Michigan UIA said it is now investigating the incident.

“Unfortunately, Michael Ryder’s claim will not be allowed,” Tim Kolar, state administrator of investigations with the UIA, said in a statement to WZZM. “I know first-hand it is rare for ‘man’s best friend’ to contribute financially to the household and that will continue in this instance.”

Following the mishap, Haddock said in an email to The Post that he hoped “it raised some awareness of the growing fraud States are battling in processing unemployment insurance claims.”

“I have received an email denying benefits,” he said, “and I do not intend to assist Ryder in filing an appeal.”

This post has been updated.

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Tax identity theft awareness week

LEE COUNTY, Fla.– It’s tax identity theft awareness week and Florida ranks as one of the top 3 states for identity theft, according to the FTC.

Miriam Dotson of the Lee County Sheriff’s Office is breaking down how SWFL ranks when it comes to fraud.

She says the most popular call for the year was the IRS scam, there were almost 1,300 calls on that scam alone.

February is the busiest month for calls to the fraud line, when people start filing their tax returns. April came in a close second.

According to the FTC, Naples ranks 5th in our state for identity theft and Fort Myers-Cape Coral ranks 19th.

This week, the FTC and IRS are hosting free online webinars and chats on the topics so you can learn more by logging on to their websites.

LCSO encourages you to use those resources but also be sure to file early. This way, the scammer gets denied your return instead of you finding out your legitimate file is denied.

For more information on how to protect yourself or if you think you’ve been a victim of identity theft, call LCSO.

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