Taxpayer Protection Program Sidesteps Right to Representation

We welcome guest blogger Barbara Heggie. Barb is the Coordinator and Staff Attorney for the Low-Income Taxpayer Project of the New Hampshire Pro Bono Referral System. In the most recent Annual Report to Congress, the National Taxpayer Advocate identified the high false positive rate associated with the IRS’s fraud detection systems as the fifth most serious problem affecting taxpayers. The IRS took steps to improve its refund fraud program for the 2019 filing season; the results were not fully in at the time of the National Taxpayer Advocate’s 2020 Objectives Report. In today’s post, Barb walks us through a recent false positive case from her clinic. She identifies IRS procedures that pose a high barrier to successfully passing through the verification process, particularly for taxpayers who need assistance from a representative. Barb suggests the IRS ought to make changes to comport with a taxpayer’s right to representation. Christin

I had my first encounter with the IRS’s Integrity & Verification Operations (IVO) function last month. It did not go well.

I had prepared a 2017 return a few weeks earlier for a disabled, fifty-something client in recovery from substance abuse, and he’d been anticipating receipt of a small overpayment. His main source of income that year had been Social Security, but he’d also had a few hundred dollars in wages. His payroll withholding, plus a bit of the Earned Income Credit, had added up to an early fall heating bill here in New Hampshire.

Instead of a refund notice, we each received a copy of a Letter 4883C from the IVO Taxpayer Protection Program; his return had been flagged, and he needed to verify his identity. Given this client’s severe anxiety concerning the IRS, I studied the letter and prepared to make the call alone. I anticipated no issues; I had all the documentation the letter required, including the flagged return, the prior year’s return, and all supporting forms and schedules for each.

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Once on the line with IVO, however, things quickly got strange. Following the preliminary, “normal” authentication, the customer service representative (CSR) asked me to answer these questions three: “What is your client’s place of birth? What is his mother’s maiden name? And what is his father’s middle name?” I had none of this information and have never asked such things of my clients, save for the place of birth for an ITIN application. I don’t collect birth certificates as a matter of course.

Interestingly, Letter 4883C did warn of “questions to verify your identity” – but then listed the documents to have on hand. Hence, I believed those documents would be the basis for the verification questions. The letter “encourage[s]” the client “to be available . . . on the call” with an authorized representative, but it fails to explain why that might, in fact, be essential.

Had I studied more than the 4883C letter, I would have realized that the call would involve “high risk authentication procedures,” necessitating “Additional Taxpayer Authentication.” IRM 21.1.3.2.3(2); 21.1.3.2.4(2); 25.25.6.4. Once in the land of Additional Taxpayer Authentication, the caller is subject to the TPP HRA IAT disclosure tool; that is, the Taxpayer Protection Program High Risk Authentication Integrated Automation Technologies Disclosure tool. IRM 25.25.6.4(2). This tool, in turn, generates a series of authentication questions for the taxpayer, the answers to which cannot easily be guessed by anyone else, including the taxpayer’s authorized representative. Tantalizingly, the IRM provides a long list of possible questions to ask in the ITIN identity theft context – possibly the same as those asked of SSN holders – but they’re all masked against public consumption. IRM 25.25.6.4(8).

Thus, if I had thought to read the IRM before placing the verification call, I wouldn’t have had a clue what questions might be asked. But I would have realized the futility of making the call without my client on the line.

And, so, I flunked the call. When I explained my client’s situation and offered to call right back with the answers, the CSR informed me that I had already used up my “one chance” to resolve the issue “the easy way.” The two hard ways were: (1) attending an in-person meeting with the client at a Taxpayer Assistance Center (TAC), or (2) verifying his identity by mail. Both methods required the authentication documentation originally requested, as well as two forms of identification. The CSR stated that he was making the mail-in option available to my client only because of his severe anxiety.

My client did, eventually, verify his identity at a TAC with the help of a volunteer attorney who was kindly working with him to reduce his anxiety about the IRS. Fortunately, both the client and the volunteer had only a few minutes’ drive to reach the TAC. But conversations with practitioners on the ABA Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic (LITC) listserv reminded me that this is often not the case. To receive a legitimately-claimed refund – already months late – a rural client may need to jump through ever-more burdensome hoops, such as an unpaid day off from work and an expensive tank of gas.

Clients lacking English fluency doubtless find further barriers standing in their way in such a system. One LITC colleague recalled an incident with IVO in which she and her low-English client participated in the call together via speaker phone, yet the CSR forbade this attorney from speaking for her client. Other LITC staff have recounted similar experiences. All such scenarios seem contrary to the authentication provisions of IRM 25.25.6.3.1(3)(1), which explicitly states that “the POA is authorized to act on behalf of the taxpayer.”

My client’s identity verification scenario was arguably less egregious than these. Moreover, in the context of the enormously costly, vastly complex problem of identity theft, overbroad rule-writing is understandable, if not optimal. Getting it right is as difficult as it is critical. And yet, as retired National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson wrote in her June 20, 2019, NTA blog post, “the soundness and effectiveness of any tax administration is measured by the trust its taxpayers have that they will be treated fairly and justly.” Overbroad IRM provisions can lead to an erosion of this trust in the system – a system which relies primarily on voluntary compliance.

More particularly, the procedures that led to my authentication difficulty violate the client’s right to retain representation. The right to retain representation implies, of course, the right to have a representative speak and act for the taxpayer. Any limitation on this right should come with justification, such as the need for a taxpayer to sign certain documents under penalties of perjury. Even then, the taxpayer holds the right to authorize a representative in certain exigent circumstances. See 26 CFR 1.6012-1(a)(5).

In the case of an IVO identity verification, IRM 25.25.6.3.1(3)(1) has the practical effect of limiting the representative’s authority, but without justification. This provision directs the CSR to “follow all instructions in the IRM as if the POA is the taxpayer.” (Emphasis added.) However, because the POA is not, in fact, the taxpayer, the POA cannot answer questions specifically designed to be answerable solely by the taxpayer. Thus, this IRM provision deprives the taxpayer of the chance to have a representative resolve the identity verification issue. Given the misleading nature of Letter 4883C, a taxpayer and representative may lose their “one chance” to make a speedy verification over the telephone and instead be forced to do so in person at an IRS office.

Security concerns provide no justification for this provision. A high level of security can be maintained by asking the representative to answer such questions as only the representative can answer. After all, the only two people addressed in a Letter 4883C are the taxpayer and the representative. And, presumably, if the IRS knows your client’s place of birth, mother’s maiden name, and father’s middle name, the IRS has the same information on you. As Sir Galahad discovered – alas, too late – the only correct answers to personal questions are your own personal answers.

The right to retain representation is part of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TBOR), found in IRC §7803(a)(3) and IRS Publication 1. As last year’s Facebook case emphasized, however, Section 7803(a)(3) specifies that various “other provisions” of the Code afford these rights. Thus, the Facebook court concluded, “no right was a new right created by the TBOR itself.” Rather, TBOR is more concerned with training and management of IRS employees, according to the United States District Court, N.D. California, San Francisco Division. Keith Fogg takes the discussion a few steps further in his forthcoming Temple Law Review article:

Perhaps more important than litigation is the role TBOR can play in shaping policy decisions at the IRS. It could play a major role in the regulations issued and in the sub-regulatory guidance that governs everyday life at the IRS. . . TBOR also has a role to play in internal discussions at the IRS which shape so much of the administrative process. If TBOR can alter the culture at the IRS to incorporate taxpayer rights as a major component of each policy decision, it will become an important part of tax administration whether or not it becomes an important part of litigation.

Several discussions on this topic can be found in Procedurally Taxing here, here, and here.

It may be that a bit of policy-shaping and culture-altering may come of the authentication tribulation my client and I experienced. I submitted a request on the representation issue in the Systemic Advocacy Management System (SAMS), #41352, and got a sympathetic reply from the analyst assigned to it. After a couple of weeks, she reported back that the issue had been elevated to the Revenue Protection Team, with the goal of finding ways “to make the system move more smoothly.” Moreover, she said, the issue would be added to the CSRs’ training package. With luck, all changes will be made with an eye to TBOR.

Boo Boo Busted: Alabama Man Sentenced to Thirty Years for Role in ID Theft Tax Refund Fraud Schemes

Earlier this month, the Department of Justice announced in a press release that William Gosha III, who went by the nickname Boo Boo, was sentenced to 30 years for his role as mastermind in a brazen identity theft ring that resulted in the filing over 8,800 fake tax returns and the receipt of over $9 million in bogus refunds.

The case stands out both for its scope and impact. Co-conspirators included an employee of a hospital in Fort Benning, Georgia, who stole US soldiers’ identities and Social Security numbers. The soldiers’ information enabled Boo Boo and co-conspirators to file fake returns claiming phony refunds, including for soldiers who were stationed in Afghanistan.

The scheme also reached other government agencies, as co-conspirators included an employee of the Georgia Department of Public Health and Georgia Department of Human Services. Gosha also arranged to steal identities from inmates at a local prison and conspired with a US Postal Service employee to get physical addresses for refunds when financial institutions limited his ability to get refunds directly deposited in bank accounts.

Thirty years seems on the high end for sentencing for a crime such as this though I doubt that many schemes have had this deep a reach with other government agencies. In addition, the victim impact statements, including a statement from a parent of a soldier whose identity was stolen and who heard from the IRS while her son was in Afghanistan, must have had a major influence on the sentence:

This news was devastating to think that my [] 19-year-old son[,] who was defending the very freedom this country stands [for] [,] was wronged by one of those people [he] was willing to die for. My whole family could not believe what was happening. We now had to worry about this terrible act by one of our own. As I tried my best to keep composed and handle all of the gruesome mounds of paperwork to get this straightened out with the IRS, [my son] was then denied his tax refund [as result of this scheme]. This created a financial hardship on [him]. We were too afraid to tell [him] while he was deployed because we did not want to worry him and we wanted him to focus only on getting home alive and not have to worry about such an atrocious act by someone who did not even know

Last month IRS announced that in 2017 it has been very successful in cutting back on identity theft based refund fraud. Key indicators show that IRS has turned the tide in the battle:

  • In 2017, the IRS received 242,000 reports from taxpayers compared to 401,000 in 2016 – a 40 percent decline. This was the second year in a row this number fell, dropping from the 677,000 victim reports in 2015. Overall, the number of identity theft victims has fallen nearly 65 percent between 2015 and 2017.
  • The number of tax returns with confirmed identity theft declined to 597,000 in 2017, compared to 883,000 in 2016 – a 32 percent decline. The amount of refunds protected from those fraudulent returns was $6 billion in 2017, compared to $6.4 billion in 2016. In 2015, there were 1.4 million confirmed identity theft returns totaling $8.7 billion in refunds protected. Overall during the 2015-2017 period, the number of confirmed identity theft tax returns fell by 57 percent with more than $20 billion in taxpayer refunds being protected.

As this DOJ Press release shows, identity theft is not a victimless crime. While IRS and its private sector partners are making major headway the problem is still plaguing hundreds of thousands of people, causing direct costs on them and on all of us in the form of significant IRS resources dedicated to this fight.

Scamming Taxpayers: 2018 Version

IRS has released information this week about the latest twist on identify theft related tax scams. This scam involves thieves who access personal client information from preparers, and then submit fraudulent tax returns claiming a refund. The funds arrive via direct deposit in a legitimate bank account. The thieves then pounce on the unsuspecting refund recipient, leaving messages detailing how the IRS has issued an erroneous refund and in order to correct the situation the individual must send the cash to a collection agency. Some versions of the scam threaten criminal prosecution; others threaten a so-called blacklisting of the individual’s social security number.

IRS notes that new versions of the scam are appearing; it all stems, however, from thieves compromising personal information from a preparer’s client files. Earlier this month, IRS reminded preparers on ways to secure data.

All of this reminds me about the generational shift in  tax preparation and filing and how technology has changed the dynamics, mostly for the better but in its wake creating 21st century problems and legal issues. We have discussed the effects of this shift, including recently in Delinquency Penalties: Boyle in the Age of E-Filing, where we looked at an amicus brief the ACTC filed in Haynes v US. That case tees up if a taxpayer who uses an authorized e-filer expecting that the return be timely filed can avoid a delinquency penalty if in fact there was an error in the processing of the e-filed return but the IRS or the preparer did not notify the taxpayer of the error in time to fix the glitch.

For more on the changes in tax administration relating to the shift, I recommend a review of the Electronic Tax Administration Advisory Committee (ETAAC) annual reports; recently that group has shifted its focus to more directly include security issues generally and identity theft tax refund fraud in particular. The 2017 report discusses what IRS, working with private sector and other government partners, has done and its progress in recent years. As this week’s IRS news release indicates, IRS efforts to secure the tax system from creative and motivated thieves is a little bit like whack a mole; one scam disappears and a new one pops up in its place.

 

 

Identity Theft Meets Student Loans and Wrongful Collection

An interesting case at the confluence of identity theft, student loans, and wrongful collection is set for oral argument in the D.C. Circuit on November 21, 2017. As with many cases we write about on PT, thanks goes out to Carl Smith for finding this case and bringing it to our attention. The case is Reginald L. Ivy v. Commissioner. Although Mr. Ivy is pro se, the court has appointed Travis Crum and Brian Netter of Mayer Brown LLP as Amicus Curiae to write in support of his position.

Mr. Ivy owed student loans and the Department of Education certified those loans to the Treasury Department for offset because he was in default. Someone stole Mr. Ivy’s identify and filed a false return claiming a refund. The IRS allowed an overpayment of $1,822, and the money was sent to DOE to pay off the student loan. I can only imagine the chagrin of the identity thief for being good enough to prepare a return that got through the IRS filters only to find out that the selected victim had an outstanding federal liability subject to the federal offset procedures.

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In August of 2013, the student loan was fully satisfied thanks, in part, to the offset of the refund on the fraudulently filed return by the ID thief. In September of 2013 Mr. Ivy learned of the false 2011 return and prepared and submitted his own return for that year. On his return, he showed an overpayment of $634.

The IRS became aware that the first return filed under Mr. Ivy’s name for 2011 was a false return and it reversed the credit which had the effect of putting Mr. Ivy into default on his student loan. When the IRS reversed the credit, it caused the “real” overpayment by Mr. Ivy to go to, or stay with, DOE. Mr. Ivy complained that he should receive his $634 refund because his student loan was satisfied and argued that in keeping his $634, the IRS acted impermissibly. He brought suit in federal district court under IRC 7433, seeking the return of his money plus damages, arguing that the failure of the IRS to send him the refund caused him to miss a payment on another debt and triggered higher interest charges on the other debt.

The IRS argued that IRC 6402(g) prohibited suit against the IRS and that Mr. Ivy would have to sue DOE on the debt. In effect, the IRS argued that it gave him his refund and that his recourse was to go against the agency that prevented him from receiving the refund, and that agency was not the IRS. This is the standard argument that the IRS makes when someone has their refund offset because of the debt of owed to another agency of the state or federal government participating in the Treasury offset program and is a logical argument because of the language of the statute. In effect, his real beef was not with the IRS which had allowed not one but two refunds on his account, but rather was with the agency seeking to collect his student loan debt.

The district court agreed with the IRS and dismissed the suit. Mr. Ivy appealed, and the Circuit Court brought in the pro bono lawyers. The briefs have been filed. Attached are the Opening Brief of Amicus Curiae and the reply brief of Amicus Curiae. The briefs were filed this summer. During the briefing, the IRS sent Mr. Ivy a check for $634 plus interest. I cannot explain why the IRS did that. The sending of the refund means that only the damages portion of the suit remains.

At issue is the interplay between IRC 6402(g) and 7433(a). Section 6402(g) provides:

No court of the United States shall have jurisdiction to hear any action, whether legal or equitable, brought to restrain or review a reduction authorized by subsection (c), (d), (e) or (f). No such reduction shall be subject to review by the Secretary in an administrative proceeding. No action brought against the United States to recover the amount of any such reduction shall be considered to be a suit for refund of tax. This subsection does not preclude any legal equitable, or administrative action against the Federal agency or State to which the amount of such reduction was paid or any such action against the Commissioner of Social Security which is otherwise available with respect to recoveries of overpayments of benefits under section 204 of the Social Security Act.

Section 7433(a) provides

If, in connection with an collection of Federal tax with respect to a taxpayer, any officer or employee of the Internal Revenue Service recklessly or intentionally, or by reason of negligence, disregards any provision of this title, or any regulation promulgated under this title, such taxpayer may bring a civil action for damages against the United States in a district court of the United States. Except as provided in section 7432, such civil action shall be the exclusive remedy for recovering damages resulting from such actions.

The issue is whether there is any room left between to two statutes for Mr. Ivy to squeeze in a claim. Does the very broad bar of 6402(g) stop all action as the district court found (and as I am inclined to believe), or do the actions of the IRS with respect to the refund somehow constitute collection action on which the IRS has recklessly, intentionally, or negligently disregarded the code or regulations? So, Mr. Ivy must not only get past the bar of the first statute, he must find that sending the refund to DOE is collection activity. The amicus brief makes that argument after examining, through other cases, what is collection activity. It gets there in part because the refund is sent after an assessment, and an assessment is a predicate to collection action. But assessment, as they point out, is also a predicate to creation of an overpayment. I cannot make the leap that granting someone a refund and then sending it to another agency is collection action taken by the IRS in any sense, other than the sense covered by the jurisdictional bar of 6402(g).

The situation makes for an interesting discussion, but I cannot get past the fact that it looks like the IRS did exactly what the jurisdictional bar covers and nothing more. I would love to know why the IRS sent Mr. Ivy his refund in the end. I am curious to know if DOE is still trying to collect from him after the IRS reversed the credits. Of course, I would also like to know more about the ID thief and whether he or she, after starting this whole mess, has been caught.

 

Prisoners Filing Fraudulent Returns and the Efforts to Detect It

On July 20, 2017, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) issued its third report in the past several years on the topic of tax fraud perpetrated by prisoners and the efforts to detect and stop it.  As with most TIGTA reports this one bears the catchy title “Actions Need to be Taken to Ensure Compliance with Prisoner Reporting Requirements and Improve Identification of Prisoner Returns.”  While TIGTA found a number of items the IRS needed to improve because that’s its job, I found that the IRS had made significant improvements in this area due to increased effort and legislative assistance.  I last wrote about this issue on April 24, 2015 following the last TIGTA report.

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Prisoners have a reputation for using the tax system to get easy money.  The increase in the use of refundable credits put a target on the back of the IRS as a place to pick up money simply by filing a tax return.  Since tax returns can be filed from prison, using the tax system to gain access to money makes sense for prisoners.  When Congress created the first time homebuyer credit and the refundable adoption credit, it created very attractive targets for the type of fraudulent activity by prisoners.

In this report, TIGTA continues to find problems with the way the IRS administers the program for catching prisoners but the data also shows that the IRS has made significant strides using the relatively new legislation as well as its computers.  The process of seeking prisoner fraud looks very much like the other processes the IRS uses to detect mistakes in individual tax returns.  It relies heavily on matching information with computers rather than people and applying filters.  The ability to tackle the problem without devoting much people power allows the IRS to succeed here in a time of reduced resources.  While this program does not bring in revenue, the ability to keep improper refunds from going out the door is at least as important as putting effort into bringing in money.

One of the legislative changes requires prisons to provide the IRS with the Social Security Numbers of inmates.  The IRS then puts a prisoner indicator on the account of that SSN.  If someone is in prison, we should not expect that person to have significant income, though of course exceptions exist, and we should not expect that person to buy a home, adopt a child or engage in other activities that might trigger a refundable credit.  Having the information from the prisons, allows the IRS to do some immediate filtering that can catch improper claims.

Dealing with prisoner fraud also implicates the broader area of identity theft.  The IRS appears to have made significant strides in attacking ID theft in the past two years and that success has an impact on prisoner fraud since fraudulent returns filed by prisoners will more often than not involve the use of stolen or misused identification.

There is more than one program underway to stop prisoner refund fraud.  In addition to getting the SSNs of prisoners and loading it into the IRS database, prisons are now more carefully monitoring prisoner communication looking for tax fraud.  When a prison identifies a communication as one which might involve tax fraud, it notifies the IRS through the “Blue Bag Program.”  While the amount of correspondence sent to the IRS using this program in 2016 was slightly under 1,000, the existence of the program must serve as a deterrent.  This program would seem to play to a strong suit of prisons the way data matching plays to a strong suit of the IRS.

The prison program did not seem to work as well as one might hope in addressing the cases in which the IRS detects fraud by a prisoner.  The report indicates that the IRS might stop the fraud but little is done to punish the prisoner who engaged in the fraud even though the prisoner is known.  The IRS is not going to be able to prosecute prisoners unless they engage in a fairly wide ranging fraudulent effort just because of the limitations on its resources.  My impression from the report was that when the IRS provided information to the prisons about specific tax fraud activity but that information did not necessarily result in parole denial or other actions that could occur without criminal tax prosecution.  While the report did not discuss this in depth, it would seem that tailoring disclosure laws to allow the IRS to provide prisons with detailed information about an incidence of tax fraud and making that information a part of probation denial and other punishments within prison system without requiring criminal tax prosecution would be a way to strongly deter prisoner fraud for prisoners with hope of release or of the ability to use computers or other forms of communication.

TIGTA found that the IRS had not created a master list of all prisons.  Most of the prisons the IRS seemed not to be getting information from were part of the state and local system.  I would be interested in an analysis of which prisons or which types of prisons are most likely to generate tax fraud.  It would seem to state prisons incarcerating individuals for crimes of violence would be much less likely than federal prisons with more white collar crime and the knowledge base for creating the type of scheme necessary for refund fraud but my thinking about this could be entirely wrong.  Still, a profile of the likely prisoner to commit tax fraud would seem like something useful to create and to target efforts on those prisons or those prisoners where the likely criminals reside.

Since few tax practitioners represent incarcerated individuals, this report may provide little practical information.  I see it as a success story for IRS and Congress at a time when there are not enough success stories about legislative or administrative efforts to fix a problem.  Maybe lessons can be learned from the efforts to stop prisoner fraud and applied to the tax gap generally.  We know where the big holes are.

 

TIGTA Report Shows IRS Has a Long Way to Go On Employment Related Identity Theft

The other day I wrote about the Electronic Tax Administration Advisory Committee and its annual report showcasing many successes and improvements IRS made when it came to identity theft. Part of the success ETAAC discussed included a major drop in identity theft receipts, which the report suggests is the product of better detection at the front end of the return filing process. TIGTA, in a report from last month, highlights a different story when it comes to employment related identity theft. Essentially TIGTA found that IRS materially understates the number of employment-related identity theft cases and has had major systemic flaws in informing victims.

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What is employment related identity theft? As most readers know, to gain employment one must have valid Social Security number. Individuals who are not authorized to work in the US sometimes use other peoples’ Social Security numbers to secure employment. They then file a individual income tax return using an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). Individuals whose SS numbers are used by someone else can be in for a surprise after they file a tax return (or do not file due to not having an obligation to file) when IRS may send an Automatic Underreporting (AUR) notice reflecting the income that was earned by someone else who illegitimately used their SS number.

IRS procedures are supposed to catch returns that are submitted by an ITIN user that reflect someone else’s SS # associated with wages. In IRS speak, that is known as an ITIN/SSN mismatch. When all works well, IRS places an identity theft marker on the victim’s account, and prevents victims from getting an AUR notice.

TIGTA found that all does not work well, with a number of systemic issues associated with placing markers on accounts. It examined over a million e-filed returns that had an SS/ITIN mismatch and found that in about 51.8% of the time IRS put the appropriate identity theft marker on the account. The IRS did not place markers on the remaining 48%; that was because many in that 48% group did not have a tax account (Note IRS defines tax account as an active account as one “for which the taxpayer’s Master File account, which contains the taxpayer’s name, current addresses, and filing requirements, etc., exists on the IRS computer system capable of retrieving or updating stored information.”).

Of the e-filed returns, there were another 60,000 or so victims who did have a tax account but still did not have an id theft marker placed; IRS noted various reasons, including its placing only one marker per return even if the return filed has multiple incorrect SS# associated W-2s and that some of the victims were minors and IRS did not have procedures in place to inform minors.

TIGTA sensibly recommended that IRS take steps to improve its process of placing id theft markers on all e-filed returns. IRS generally agreed with the recommendations and said it would monitor progress “and determine, by July 2018, the requisite programming changes needed to ensure that identity theft markers are properly applied when the potential misuse of an individual’s SSN becomes evident.”

In addition to e-filing issues, TIGTA noted major problems that the IRS has had in placing identity theft markers when a return reflecting an ITIN/SS mismatch is not e-filed:

Specifically, guidelines state that a Form W-2 is not required for Line 7 (Wages, Salaries, Tips, etc.) of Form 1040. As such, the IRS has no way to identify ITIN/SSN mismatches associated with paper tax returns. In addition, if the ITIN filer voluntarily attaches a Form W-2 with an SSN, IRS internal guidelines do not require employees processing these returns to place an employment identity theft marker on the SSN owner’s tax account.

TIGTA recommended that IRS require ITIN filers to attach W-2s with their 1040’s; IRS rejected that recommendation because it noted that “wages constitute taxable income under Internal Revenue Code Section 61 and are reportable even when a Form W-2 is not provided or is otherwise unavailable at the time of return filing.” IRS did, however, agree to put better procedures in place when a paper filed ITIN return does in fact include W-2s that reflect a mismatch.

Conclusion

The TIGTA report shows that IRS has a lot of room for improvement. People need to be vigilant, as IRS in many cases does not take action even if it has information that reflects a high likelihood that someone is improperly using a Social Security number. As TIGTA notes, if IRS fails to place an identity theft marker on an account, “victims can be subjected to additional burden when the IRS processes their tax returns.” It may trigger confusing and stressful notices and limit the ability for IRS and others to help victims unwind the effects of the identity thief. IRS needs to do a better job here, as the costs for victims in time, stress and potentially dollars are likely very significant.

Electronic Tax Administration Advisory Committee Report to Congress: Updates on E-Filing, Refund Fraud and Identity Theft

Last month the Electronic Tax Administration Advisory Committee issued its annual report to Congress. ETAAC was born in the 98 Restructuring Act; it is an advisory committee that is made up of a number of volunteers from the private sector, consumer advocacy groups and state tax administrators. As I discuss below, the report considers e-filing and refund fraud and identity theft issues.

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When formed in 98, ETAAC’s mission was principally directed at IRS reaching an 80% rate of electronic return filing; this year’s report details the substantial progress in meeting that target, though there is a range in e-filing that is based on type of return. For example individual income tax returns are e-filed at around 88%; exempt org returns are in the mid-60% range. ETAAC projects this year that the overall electronic filing for all returns will exceed 80%.

A Shifting Focus to Refund Fraud and Identity Theft

With ETAAC essentially fulfilling its primary mission, last year its charter was amended to include the problem of Identity Theft Tax Refund Fraud (ITTRF), which, as the report states, threatens to undermine the integrity of our tax system:

America’s voluntary compliance tax system and electronic tax filing systems exist, and succeed, because of the trust and confidence of the American taxpayers (and policy makers). Any corrosion of trust in filing tax returns electronically would result in reverting back to the less-efficient and very costly “paper model.” That option is neither feasible any longer nor desirable.

The report discusses the IRS’s convening of a Security Summit and last year’s special $290 million appropriation to “improve service to taxpayers, strengthen cybersecurity and expand their ability to address identity theft.” The main goals relating to ITTRF include educating and protecting taxpayers, strengthening cyber defenses and detecting and preventing fraud early in the process.

The report discusses a number of ITTRF successes in the past year:

  • From January through April 2016, the IRS stopped $1.1 billion in fraudulent refunds claimed by identity thieves on 171,000 tax returns; compared to $754 million in fraudulent refunds claimed on 141,000 returns for the same period in 2015. Better data from returns and information about schemes meant better filters to identify identity theft tax returns.
  • Thanks to leads reported from industry partners, the IRS suspended 36,000 suspicious returns for further review from January through May 8, 2016, and $148 million in claimed refunds; twice the amount of the same period in 2015 of 15,000 returns claiming $98 million. Industry’s proactive efforts helped protect taxpayers and revenue.
  • The number of anticipated taxpayer victims fell between/during 2015 to 2016. Since January, the IRS Identity Theft Victim Assistance function experienced a marked drop of 48 percent in receipts, which includes Identity Theft Affidavits (Form 14039) filed by victims and other identity theft related correspondence.
  • The number of refunds that banks and financial institutions return to the IRS because they appear suspicious dropped by 66 percent. This is another indication that improved data led to better filters which reduced the number of bad refunds being issued.
  • Security Summit partners issued warnings to the public, especially payroll industry, human resources, and tax preparers, of emerging scams in which criminals either posed as company executives to steal employee Form W-2 information or criminals using technology to gain remote control of preparers’ office computers.

E-file Signature Verification

While ETAAC shifts its focus to include security and fraud detection, it still examines how IRS is doing in the e-file arena. One area in the report that I think warrants further reflection is ETAAC’s recommendation that IRS improve its ability to allow taxpayers to verify an e-filed return. The report discusses the history of signing and verifying an e-filed return, which now requires that the taxpayer have access to the prior year’s AGI or a special PIN.  While most software will allow for those numbers to carry over from last year’s returns, at times taxpayers may not know last year’s AGI or the PIN (e.g., when there is a switch in software) and ETAAC tells us that this has triggered many taxpayers abandoning e-filing and reverting to paper filing.

The report discusses how the IRS Get Transcript online tool ostensibly could facilitate taxpayers getting access to their last year’s AGI but that access has a clunky authentication process that has led to a very high fail rate for users (the Report also discusses the compromising of a prior iteration of the Get Transcript online tool and other data breaches).

As IRS works out the kinks with its “Future State” platform, authentication and ease of taxpayer access will be crucial. Of course, given the backdrop of dedicated and as the report notes nimble and dedicated criminals who continue to probe for weaknesses this will continue to be a challenge for IRS and its partners.

Using a Refund Suit to Remedy Identity Theft of Return Preparer Fraud

Today, we welcome guest blogger, Robert G. Nassau.  Professor Nassau teaches at Syracuse University College of Law and directs the low income taxpayer clinic (LITC) there.  Today, he discusses twin problems that have plagued my taxpayers, identity theft and preparer fraud.  He has employed refund suits before to resolve cases in which the IRS has frozen a taxpayer’s earned income tax credit and in the post today he explains how he used a refund suit to solve a seemingly intractable identity theft/preparer fraud issue.  His pioneering and innovative use of refund suits to craft favorable results for his clients is probably what caused him to become the author of the chapter on refunds in the book “Effectively Representing Your Client before the IRS.”  The book is gearing up for its seventh edition in 2017 and Professor Nassau has signed on for another update of the refund chapter.  Keith

As all tax professionals know, tax-related identity theft and return preparer fraud are widespread, and trying to assist a victim of these crimes – despite significant procedural improvements made by the Internal Revenue Service – can make one envy Sisyphus and his Boulder Problem.  Recently, the Syracuse University College of Law Low Income Taxpayer Clinic successfully resolved one such taxpayer’s ordeal – and did it by filing a refund suit in Federal District Court.  This is his story.

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The Taxpayer.

Prior to 2011, John Doe (not his real name) had traditionally prepared and filed his own tax returns, and had never had any problems.  When he was working on his 2011 return, his calculations were not leading to his accustomed refund.  When he mentioned his dilemma to a friend, she suggested that he contact Bonnie Parker (not her real name), who, according to the friend, was very knowledgeable in all things tax.  John went to Bonnie, showed her his W-2, and gave her some additional personal information.  Bonnie said she would look into it and get back to him, but she never did.  John never saw her again.  John himself did not timely file his 2011 return, because he was considering filing for bankruptcy, and thought he had three years to file the return.

The Crime Perpetrated.

Unbeknownst, at the time, to John, Bonnie submitted a fraudulent return using John’s identity and some of his legitimate information, and received a refund of about $5,000.

The Crime Discovered.

In early 2013, John realized that something was amiss, as he started to get collection notices regarding “his” 2011 tax return.  The Service had audited John’s “return” on the basis of both automated underreporting and child-based benefits.  Because the audit was ignored, John now found himself assessed close to $6,000.

The Failure of Traditional Remedies.

Having “put two and two together,” John filed his real 2011 return in the summer of 2013, claiming a refund of about $2,000.  This return was not processed.  In early 2014, John went to his local Taxpayer Assistance Center, where he was encouraged to submit an Identity Theft Affidavit (IRS Form 14039), which he did.  This did not solve the problem.  Later in 2014 he was told to submit a Tax Return Preparer Fraud or Misconduct Affidavit (IRS Form 14157-A), and a Complaint: Tax Return Preparer (IRS Form 14157).  John submitted both of these Forms.  He also filed a police report with the Syracuse Police Department.  None of this solved his problem.  In fact, while he was trying to solve his 2011 problem, his refunds for 2012 and 2013 (and, later 2014) were all offset and applied to his 2011 “debt,” reducing it to around $2,000.  In early 2015, John sought help from the Taxpayer Advocate Service, which, despite diligent efforts by his Case Advocate, was unable to fix the problem.  Apparently, the Service was confused by whether this was an Identity Theft case or a Return Preparer Fraud case.  In addition, the Service was suspicious of John and his “relationship” with Bonnie.  Ultimately, his Case Advocate suggested that he contact the Syracuse LITC.

Commencement of the Refund Suit.

Concluding that it would be fruitless to try to solve John’s problem administratively (that train had left the station and was not coming back), the Syracuse LITC decided to file a refund suit on John’s behalf in Federal District Court, which it did in November 2015.  The Complaint sought a recovery of John’s claimed refunds on his actual 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014 returns. In our view, because each of those returns had claimed a refund; six months had passed since each return had been filed; and it was not more than two years from John’s receipt of a notice of disallowance with respect to any of his claims (there had been no such notices), the District Court had jurisdiction to hear his case.  (Section 6532(a)(1) of the Code.)

The Department of Justice Answers.

In his Answer, the attorney for the Department of Justice raised two interesting points (while denying most of the factual assertions for lack of knowledge): (1) the refunds for 2012, 2013 and 2014 had actually been granted – they had just been offset to 2011, therefore, there was no issue for those years; and (2) there might be a jurisdictional issue regarding 2011, because there was currently a balance due for 2011, and, pursuant to United States v. Flora, one cannot bring a refund suit if one still owes any part of the taxes assessed for that year.  While this first point is not without a good deal of merit, the second point creates a fascinating potential Catch-22 (fascinating from a tax law perspective, not from a solve-the-problem perspective).  If the DOJ attorney were correct, the Court would implicitly have to conclude that the fraudulent return was the real return, when the case is premised on the fact that the fraudulent return is fraudulent and the real return shows a refund (hence no Flora issue).  Effectively, if the DOJ attorney were correct, one might never get his “day in court” to prove that he was the victim of identity theft or return prepare fraud.

How It Played Out.

While reserving his Flora argument, the DOJ attorney flew to Syracuse to depose John.  Having listened to John’s story in person, and having done some independent sleuthing of his own, the DOJ attorney concluded that John was telling the truth.  He arranged to have the fraudulent 2011 return (and its liability) purged from the system, and John’s actual 2011 return respected and processed.  Interestingly, that actual 2011 return wound up showing a small liability, but it was more than offset by John’s 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 refunds, so he received a significant check.  It took thirteen months from the time John filed his refund suit until the time his account was rectified and he received his proper refund.

Lessons and Observations.

Given John’s – and even TAS’s – inability to solve his tax problem administratively, a refund suit seemed his best, if not only, resort.  While it took over a year to reach the correct result, the refund suit brought with it an intelligent, diligent and dedicated DOJ attorney who, to his credit, seemed more concerned with reaching the correct result than with trying to set a new jurisdictional precedent.  It also brought a Judge who seemed to believe John from the “get-go,” and who prodded the parties toward settlement.  While we would certainly recommend fully exhausting one’s administrative avenues of relief first, where those have proven unsuccessful, we would encourage taxpayers to file refund suits to get the result they deserve.