DELPHOS - It’s that time of the year again when people sharpen up their pencils and rummage through a year’s worth of receipts to calculate deductions and fill out and file state and federal income tax returns. Little do some of these pencil pushers know that someone may have already filed an income tax return on their behalf and the refund check is already on its way to an obscure mailing address or being deposited into a fraudulent bank account.

According to a report from the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA), in 2013, close to 1.6 million Americans were victims of the crime through the month of June — a number up from the 1.2 million victims of the crime in all of 2012. In 2013, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) paid $5.2 billion in tax-related identity theft.

H&R Block’s Accredited Tax Advisor JoAn Smith said tax-related identity theft is becoming a prevalent problem.

“Criminals only need someone’s Social Security number (SSN) and possibly their date of birth to file a fraudulent tax return,” she said. “We have dealt with it in the past and there are some every year.”

Since W-2 wage data from employers are not available until months — typically in July — after tax refunds are sent, the IRS can not match the wage information to taxpayer returns before refunds are sent out. As a result, fraudulent claims are going undetected. In other words, rather than holding refunds until completing all compliance checks, the IRS issues refunds after conducting selected reviews.

According to the IRS, tax-related identity theft occurs when someone uses an individual’s stolen Social Security number (SSN) to file a tax return claiming a fraudulent refund. Typically, the false return is filed early and the victim is unaware until they try and file their taxes and find one has already been filed using their SSN.

Smith said the criminals filing and collecting on fraudulent tax returns are good at creating fraud and have the means to cash the checks. “They have got all kinds of “cleaner, easier” ways - fraudulent bank accounts - to cash refund checks,” Smith said.

The IRS recommends individuals should follow these steps to reduce the risk of becoming a victim of tax-related identity theft:

• Don’t routinely carry Social Security cards or any document with a SSN on it;

• Don’t give a business your SSN just because they ask – only when absolutely necessary;

• Protect personal financial information at home and on a computer;

• Check credit reports annually;

• Check Social Security Administration earnings statement annually;

• Protect personal computers by using firewalls, anti-spam/virus software, update security patches and change passwords for Internet accounts; and

• Don’t give personal information over the phone, through the mail or on the Internet unless the contact was initiated by the individual or the identity of the person asking is known.

“There is Tax Identity Shield for 2015 tax returns,” Smith said. “After filing their 2014 tax return, the taxpayer applies for a pin number which they will use when filing 2015 earnings. It’s a proactive way to be sure no one can file a return in the real taxpayer’s name without having the pin number.”

The IRS does not initiate contact with taxpayers by email to request personal or financial information. This includes any type of electronic communication, such as text messages and social media channels.

Individuals should be alert to possible identity theft if they receive an IRS notice or letter that states more than one tax return was filed using their SSN, they owe additional tax, refund offset or have had collection actions taken against them for a year they did not file a tax return and IRS records indicate they received wages from an employer unknown to them.

Individuals who become tax-related identity theft victims should take these steps:

• file a report with the local police;

• file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission at www.identitytheft.gov or call the FTC Identity Theft Hotline at 1-877-438-4338 or TTY 1-866-653-4261;

• Contact one of the three major credit bureaus to place a ‘fraud alert’ on your credit records including; Equifax at www.Equifax.com, 1-800-525-6285; Experian at www.Experian.com, 1-888-397-3742; and TransUnion at www.TransUnion.com, 1-800-680-7289; and

• Close any accounts opened without permission or that have been tampered with.

“The IRS has the ability to check a Social Security number (SSN) for a filing,” Smith explained. “If two people are trying to use a duplicate SSN for a child, the IRS will detect that.”

If an individual’s SSN is compromised and they know or suspect they are a victim of tax-related identity theft, they should respond immediately to any IRS notice; call the number provided; complete IRS Form 14039, Identity Theft Affidavit by using a fillable form at IRS.gov, print, then mail or fax according to instructions; and continue to pay taxes and file tax returns, even if you must do so by paper.

“Always be careful with personal information, especially a SSN,” Smith said. “Be proactive and apply for a pin for your 2015 tax return. If it (tax-related identity theft) does happen, it’s along process and everything you do has to be double checked.”

Individual’s who have previously contacted the IRS and did not have a resolution should contact the Identity Protection Specialized Unit at 1-800-908-4490.

To enroll in Tax Identity Shield, H&R Block clients should speak to their tax professional for information on the product and cost.