Victims discuss scorn of IRS at tax fraud forum
TAMPA - Nancy Elliott says she was in the hospital and near death when, she thinks, her personal information was stolen and used to file a fraudulent tax return. The Pinellas County resident recovered medically, but now the Internal Revenue Service is coming after her for a debt of more than $9,000 that she says represents the fraudulent refund someone else got, plus interest and penalties. Elliott has both a letter from the IRS notifying her someone might have fraudulently filed for a tax refund in her name for the 2009 tax year, and a notice of intent to seize her property to collect on unpaid taxes for that same year. "I supposedly owe the IRS," said the retired Army staff sergeant who used to train drill sergeants. "I don't owe them anything. I keep telling them, 'Come on and audit me. Come on. Bring it on. I'm not shy.' "Elliott is one of a growing number of people who count themselves among the direct victims of a form of tax fraud investigators say has exploded in the Tampa area in recent months, bilking the federal government out of hundreds of millions of dollars and making all taxpayers its indirect victims. Local police trying to stop what they says is blatant fraud have expressed frustration at their inability to get help from the IRS, which is prohibited by law from sharing information needed to investigate crimes and seems ill-equipped to stop the fraud from happening. And while street criminals celebrate their fraud in rap videos and drive around in souped-up late-model cars, wearing expensive jewelry and clothes, these law-abiding victims are finding their credit in danger of being wrecked and their lives spent on hold hour after hour as they try to find someone - anyone - at the IRS who will listen. * * * * * The Tampa Tribune and News Channel 8 invited tax fraud identity theft victims to tell their stories, and about a dozen frustrated people gathered Wednesday evening at the News Center to share tales of being victimized twice – first by the thieves who took their information and then by an IRS that was unresponsive or worse. When asked later about these taxpayer concerns, IRS spokesman Michael Dobzinski said he could not discuss any of the specific issues, and sent the following statement: "We are prohibited by law from discussing any individual's private tax matters with anyone other than the taxpayers, this includes the news media. … The IRS is committed to working with taxpayers who have become victims of identity theft." But the identity theft victims who came to the News Center, and others who contacted The Tribune and Channel 8, were virtually unanimous in their frustration with the agency. One woman said the IRS told her not to go to police about the theft of her disabled sister's identity because the IRS could not provide any information to investigators. Michelle McKinney, of Tampa, said she has power of attorney over the affairs of her sister who lives on Supplemental Security Income and never has filed a tax return. McKinney said when she called the IRS to request a form she needed for her niece, she found out someone had filed taxes under her sister's name for the past four years. The IRS, she said, "couldn't give us any information as to who, what, when and where." While she waited for someone from the Taxpayer Advocate's Office to respond to her inquiry, McKinney said she took the day off from work and went to the local IRS office where she was told her sister might have to repay the four years of refunds received in her name. "They wouldn't tell me how much she owed,' McKinney said, "but they did say that it took the person 18 tries for it to be accepted. So they went through electronically and tried to file her taxes 18 times in one day and it finally took. ... They were just sitting at the computer trying to send it through, and the bottom line is, she said we may have to pay that four years of tax return back that we never saw." Some of the identity theft victims who came to the News Center were afraid of the IRS; they didn't want their names made public because they said they feared the agency would ruin their lives. Mostly, however, the victims were just fed up, and they came to share maddening stories of fighting a seemingly malevolent bureaucracy whose employees were unaccountable and either overwhelmed, incompetent or rude. Dobzinski, the IRS spokesman, said in his statement that IRS employees "who handle taxpayer inquiries are required to identify themselves with their name and ID badge number at the beginning of each call." Personnel, he added, are monitored and expected to be "respectful and professional when dealing with the public." But Paula Newburger, of Wimauma, for one, didn't feel respected. "I have a book of people (at the IRS) I have spoken to," she said. "If I dared to ask them to spell their name, they would hang up on me. If I asked them to slow down and give me their number, they would hang up on me. …This has been like a nightmare, a real nightmare." * * * * * Waiting for a refund has created financial problems for Newburger and her husband, she said, but she was told that if she wasn't in dire financial straits, a resolution could take several months. "I had one person who said to me, 'Don't call back because we're working on it,' and I, like an idiot, didn't call back for a long time. I said, 'Well they said they were working on it.' " Newburger cautioned another victim not to get her hopes up about having talked to someone who seemed helpful. "The one woman you spoke to that you thought was terrific and sympathetic – I've had several of those," she said. "And I've fallen into the mistake of going, 'Oh well this is finally getting taken care of,' but it doesn't." Susan Quinn of Temple Terrace said after she and her husband were notified someone filed a tax return under his Social Security number, "we called. They said, 'Oh that could be a typo. Wait 30 days and call us back.' We did. Thirty days later. 'File a paper return and call us back in 60 days.' We did. 'Call us back in 30 days. We still don't have a resolution on the account, but file an identity theft affidavit. … and call us back in 30 days.' "There's a theme there at the IRS. And finally, just last week, my husband lost his temper." Quinn said they were put through to a taxpayer advocate. "They're supposed to give us a resolution in seven days." But she said it's possible the resolution won't come through because her case doesn't qualify as a hardship. "The tax advocate asked us, 'Are you in foreclosure? Do you have a medical disability?'" Quinn said the answers were no. "We're not in foreclosure or anything like that. We just wanted our legitimate tax return."
News Channel 8 reporter Lauren Mayk contributed to this report. [email protected] (813) 259-7837
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