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How ID Theft Can Disrupt Your Taxes

By Emily E. Smith

  • PUBLISHED March 27
  • |

For Julie Dirksen*, the letter from the Internal Revenue Service was the first sign that something was wrong. Even more concerning: The letter stated that her tax refund had been delayed due to an FBI investigation. That was quite a surprise for Dirksen, who’d been wondering when the refund would show up.
As the details unfolded, Dirksen learned that someone had filed a tax return in her name. The fraudulent return listed a previous address—and an incorrect sum for the refund. The paperwork had been filed weeks earlier than she normally files her return. “None of what that person did matched my behavior,” says Dirksen.
The IRS was unaware the early return was phony—until it received her actual return weeks later. She says the agency, mistaking that first return for the real one, deposited $1,400 into someone else’s bank account. These fraudsters are called “ghost preparers” by the IRS.
Although Dirksen requested information on her case, she never found out who was responsible for the fraudulent return. An agent told her the thief could have gotten her information from any number of places: through the mail, in medical files or via a data breach at an online retailer. It could have even come from the IRS itself.
Since the thief had used both her Social Security number and her old mailing address, Dirksen suspects that mail theft may have led the fraudster to her, but she can’t know for sure. “Whoever was doing it knew what to do,” she says.
Dirksen’s correct tax refund did eventually show up—in July, which means she had to wait several months for funds she was counting on during a time when money was tight.
Fortunately, identity theft didn’t otherwise cost Dirksen financially. Now, due to restrictions, she has to use a special number from the IRS on all forms, and she can only file her taxes via mail.
The bigger hassle, however, may have been the time she sank into calling her banks and the police to make sure all of the relevant parties knew what had happened. On the advice of the IRS, she also called a credit bureau to place a fraud alert on her file, which makes it more difficult for someone to open new credit cards in her name. “I spent hours of my day on the phone contacting everybody,” she says.
Even though Dirksen doesn’t know how a thief obtained her information, she’s now extra careful about protecting her personal data. She files her taxes using certified mail, checks her monthly bank statements for any unusual charges and never writes her Social Security number on any document unless it’s absolutely required.
*Not her real name.


This chart is in the category "Smart Moves" and the title is "Tips to Avoid Tax ID Theft." The description read "These three tactics will make it harder for fraudsters to steal your personal info." There are three bullets. 1. Limit Your SSN. Be wary of using your Social Security Number on forms or online. If you need to share it, see if you can provide it over the phone. 2. Shred Everything. Everything with personal information should be unreadable before it hits the recycle bin or trash. 3. Forward Your Mail. New address? Tell the post office to forward your mail and update your address with banks, credit card companies and others who have your personal info—even if you have paperless communications.

Emily E. Smith is a freelance writer in Bozeman, MT. She writes for national and regional publications on topics ranging from personal finance to crime to wild animals. Her work has appeared in the The Guardian, Smithsonian magazine and Atlas Obscura.

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