COLLIER COUNTY, Fla. - Crooks aren't just interested in stealing your electronics and jewelry anymore. They're now interested in swiping your important documents too. The lucrative business of identity theft has some criminals targeting your W-2's and bank statements, especially during tax season.
The Federal Trade Commission estimates as many as 9 million people are victims of identity fraud each year. Just one form of that is income tax return theft. If a criminal gets his hands on your personal information, and he files your tax returns first, your refund will end up in his hands. It's a profitable business and the Collier County Sheriff's office says income tax refund theft is up 400 percent.
If Lieutenant Chad Parker with the Collier Sheriff's Office Financial Crimes Bureau had one piece of advice for you this tax season it would be, "file your income taxes before the criminal."
According to Lt. Parker, income tax fraud is second only to credit card fraud when it comes to identity theft and that means your personal information needs to be on lockdown even inside your home.
"Criminals are looking for many high-valued items. Electronics, iPads... but now your personal information is worth thousands of dollars if they can exploit your identity," he explained.
Just keeping your house secure isn't enough. He suggests your documents need to be out-of-sight and secure as well so if a burglar does break-in, you won't become an identity theft victim.
Dolores Addison found out she was a victim of identity theft after filing her 2011 tax return last year.
"We filed in March and were due a refund and nothing came, and nothing came," she told us.
That's when Dolores called the IRS and found out, someone else had used her social security number to file a return, first.
Steve Brettholtz, a CPA and President of Myers, Brettholtz and Company, P.A. in Fort Myers tells us even if you are victim of tax refund theft, you will eventually get your tax refund, but you will have to fill out a lot more paperwork, first.
"They will ask you to sign an affidavit. It's a form," Steve said. "You'll eventually get that refund. You're not penalized because of somebody else's wrongdoing."
You'll also have to file a police report and notify all three credit agencies, which takes time.
"It takes on average about 330 hours of your time to rectify the situation once you've been identified as a victim of identity theft," explained Lt. Parker.
It's a lot of work for a theft most people don't even know has happened, until they try to file their return.
Here are some signs that you may have been a victim of tax fraud identity theft.
You get a letter from the IRS that states any of the following:
--more than one tax return for you was filed
--you have a balance due, refund offset or had collection actions taken against you for a year you did file a return
--their records state you received wages from an employer you've never worked for
If you get a letter like this immediately contact the IRS.
For more tips on identity theft and what to do if you are a victim, click on these websites.
IRS taxpayer guide to identity theft