Federal authorities took action against 389 people suspected of involvement in identity theft to commit tax fraud, the IRS said Thursday.
Announced as the annual federal tax-filing season begins, the nationwide actions include 109 arrests and 189 indictments, plus court complaints and informations, said acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller.
The bulk of the enforcement actions took place on the East Coast and in the Midwest, a map released Thursday by the IRS shows.
Additionally, IRS auditors and criminal investigators in late January started visiting 197 money service businesses, including check-cashing stores, to ensure the locations don't aid identity theft or refund fraud. The visits focus on 17 high-risk areas identified by the IRS in or near New York; Philadelphia; Atlanta; Tampa; Miami; Chicago; Houston; Phoenix; Los Angeles; San Diego; El Paso; Tucson; Birmingham; Detroit; San Francisco; Oakland and San Jose.
Part of a year-long IRS crackdown, the effort targets thieves who gain access to other people's Social Security numbers and other identifying information, and then use that information to concoct and file fraudulent federal tax returns - and collect unwarranted refunds.
"As tax season begins this year, we want to be clear that there is a heavy price to pay for perpetrators of refund fraud and identity theft," said Miller. "We have aggressively stepped up our efforts to pursue and prevent refund fraud and identity theft, and we will continue to intensely focus on this area.
The tax agency has added additional computer screening filters in an effort to stop the crime, said Miller. Although he acknowledged the filters could slow IRS processing of some legitimate tax returns and refunds, Miller said the tax agency would work to keep any delays to a minimum.
Additionally, the IRS as of late 2012 had assigned more than 3,000 employees to work on identity theft-related work, said Miller. That's more than double the number devoted to the area in 2011, he said.
In all, the IRS says its efforts in 2012 "protected" against $20 billion in fraudulent refunds, most of which are directly related to identity theft. That compares with $14 billion in 2011.
Miller said the IRS is making progress in fighting identity theft refund fraud, but still has room to improve. The agency is working to speed the time it takes to get refunds to honest taxpayers victimized by the crimes, he said.
By Kevin McCoy