It's been less than a month since 16 people sued the IRS seeking class-action status on behalf of identity theft victims whose information was used to commit tax fraud.
So far, three of them have received their long-delinquent tax refunds, according to Clearwater lawyer Jim Staack, who filed the complaint. And an IRS investigator has contacted another plaintiff with instructions to "immediately" clear up the problems with her tax returns dating back to 2007 when her identity was stolen.
"The purpose of the lawsuit is to try to get the IRS to deal with the taxpayers who were subject to identity theft in a more professional manner," Staack said. "They're shuffling people around, treating them with disrespect."
But those who sue the agency seem to get their refunds.
William Amaismeier of Apollo Beach said his 2010 refund showed up in his mailbox two weeks after the lawsuit was filed and a story describing his situation appeared in The Tampa Tribune. "Do I think it's a coincidence?" he asked. "No."
"If you try to deal with the IRS by yourself, it's a runaround," he said. The reason he thinks he finally got his refund, was "because of No. 1, Staack law firm and No. 2, because you guys wrote the article."
Aaron Blok-Andersen is still waiting for his 2010 refund. The former Lakeland resident, who now lives in Atlanta, said that after pestering the agency for months, he was told in December that the refund was being sent. But he never got it.
He says it appears the IRS sent the refund to the crook who had obtained a fraudulent refund in his name. After that, the IRS "clammed up," he said.
He said an IRS worker has been assigned to his case but never returned his phone calls. The man's voicemail has a message that says he will return calls within 60 days. At one point, Blok-Andersen set an alarm on his phone to remind him to call every single day for 30 days straight. Still, no calls were returned.
Every time he calls, he gets a different person. And each time, he has to tell his entire story again.
"All I know is they acted like when I called them that it was my fault when this happened," Blok-Andersen said. "It was so stressful."
Blok-Anderson said he read a Tribune story about Staack suing the agency and contacted the lawyer. And now he's a plaintiff in the lawsuit, with every expectation that his refund is soon to come.
"If you're a plaintiff in a lawsuit, you have a much better chance of promptly receiving a refund from the IRS," Staack said. "There seems to be a direct correlation between being a plaintiff and getting your refund quickly."
Staack maintains that the IRS is paying refunds for plaintiffs to take the air out of the lawsuits. Arguing that plaintiffs who have received refunds lack legal standing to sue, the IRS persuaded a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit Staack filed last year seeking class-action status.
He hopes this time, with 16 plaintiffs, he can show the refunds are being paid as part of a strategy by the federal agency to avoid legal consequences.
Identity theft victims who don't sue are "all treated in the same manner," by the IRS, Staack said, "pushed off, ignored, given excuses. But they're not given their refunds."
Since The Tampa Tribune published a story about the most recent lawsuit, Staack said, his firm has been contacted by 60 or 70 people.
In addition to some plaintiffs receiving refunds, Staack said he recently received an unusual letter from a lawyer for the IRS asking for information about the plaintiffs, including their tax returns for the years they didn't get refunds.
Stack said he's convinced that once the IRS receives the information, it will start sending out refunds to the remaining plaintiffs. "If they start getting refunds, I think that will assist us in convincing a judge that the government is deliberately and systematically trying to ensure we don't have any plaintiffs standing."