It appears nothing of value is safe anymore from scam artists — who now are targeting the tax refunds of local residents, Mount Airy police warn.
On at least three occasions during the present tax season, victims in the city have reported cases of identity theft in which their Social Security numbers and other personal information have been used to file income tax returns.
The scam involves an effort to route refunds owed to citizens into the hands of criminals, according to city police Capt. Alan Freeman. The apparent aim is to obtain the money before the rightful owners have even filed returns themselves.
In one case that surfaced about three weeks ago, a local businessman’s tax refund was targeted by someone who had gotten the man’s personal information by unknown means, including his Social Security number and date of birth.
That individual didn’t know of the effort to steal his refund, which was derailed by a glitch in the scheme, Freeman said. “The routing number was messed up on it,” he said of the bogus tax return filed with the Internal Revenue Service which listed a destination for the funds to be deposited electronically.
“And no doubt, it was routed to somebody overseas,” Freeman said of a frequent source of various schemes victimizing Americans.
Fortunately, the problem with the routing number raised a red flag with federal tax officials. “So the IRS sent the check to the victim’s business,” Freeman said.
Fake AOL Contact
Although it is not yet known how the perpetrators obtained the businessman’s personal data, the method employed to do this is clear in the case of a second city man targeted.
In that incident, for which the man filed an identity theft complaint Thursday, the victim received an email from someone claiming to be a representative of America Online (AOL), the large mass media corporation. In the email, the victim was advised that he needed to update his information or his AOL account would be deleted.
Unfortunately, the man provided the information, Freeman said. He later contacted an actual representative of AOL who confirmed that the company did not request the information.
“Scammers often use the logos from popular companies in their efforts to take advantage of individuals,” Freeman explained. “In this particular incident, the email the victim received looked legitimate and contained AOL logos,” which were a slight variation from the real thing.
After realizing his personal information had been compromised and a tax scam might be involved, the man immediately called the IRS and a stop was put on his refund check before it could be mailed to the perpetrator.
In a third case that was reported to Mount Airy police earlier this month, a woman advised that her Social Security number had been used to file income taxes. That victim, who is on disability, said Friday she had not filed a tax return in more than 10 years, but received a letter from the IRS questioning her 2013 return.
That alerted her to the scam, and she since has contacted other agencies, including the N.C. Attorney General’s Office and Division of Motor Vehicles, in an effort to make sure her Social Security number isn’t misused in other ways.
Local authorities have been working to pinpoint those responsible for the recent scam. “We haven’t made any charges — we’re still investigating,” Freeman said.
“Of course, we requested the records from the IRS,” he continued, which can be a challenge in terms of getting that agency to release information regarding individual tax returns. “It’s a big hassle — the IRS is pretty cautious.”
The local police official said a sophisticated type of criminal is involved with the scam, who is able to cobble together enough information on people to submit legitimate-looking tax returns.
“They put some effort into it — they’ve done some research,” Freeman said.
He added that the best precaution someone can take to avoid becoming a victim is to be extremely vigilant in guarding their personal information.
“Never, ever give out your Social Security number, bank account, credit card or any other personal information, especially over the phone or through email. Contact your local law enforcement agency if you have questions.”
That includes communications from people claiming to be with legitimate enterprises such as AOL, Freeman said, which should be a warning in itself since such companies typically will not solicit personal information via emails or telephone calls.
Even though the local residents who reported being victimized haven’t lost money, Freeman said they are still at risk because their Social Security numbers — the basic identification DNA of everyone — have been compromised.
“Once it’s out there, it’s out there,” he said.
“From now on, you’re going to have problems, I would think.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-719-1924 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.