Senate Dem wants stiffer identity theft penalties

Nelson’s Senate Finance subcommittee on Fiscal Responsibility has held hearings on taxpayer identity theft in recent months, as has a House Oversight subcommittee

The Government Accountability Office, Congress’s investigative arm, found in a report released several months ago that taxpayer identity theft had mushroomed in recent years, increasing from roughly 52,000 cases in 2008 to around 250,000 two years later.

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In all, the IRS has identified close to a half million cases of identity theft since 2008. But the agency has only recommended a relative handful of cases for prosecution.

The Justice Department makes the final call on whether a criminal case goes forward.

The GAO noted that the IRS has implemented a new screening process that catches tens of thousands of fraudulent returns a year, and the agency itself stresses that a taxpayer’s information usually has already been compromised by the time the IRS gets involved.

“I realize that in the process of increasing our efforts to block attempts by identity thieves to exploit the tax system, there have been inconveniences and frustrations created for honest, hardworking American taxpayers,” Doug Shulman, the IRS commissioner, said in June before the House Oversight subcommittee on Government Relations. “For that, I am deeply sympathetic.”

Generally speaking, taxpayer identity theft occurs in two ways: Either a taxpayer’s information is used to file a fraudulent tax return, or is utilized by someone else to secure employment.

Under Nelson’s legislation, the IRS would broaden a pilot program that allows taxpayers who know their identities have been stolen to use a PIN number to ensure the correct return is processed. It would also allow those taxpayers to opt out of electronic filing.

The bill would also restrict public access to dead taxpayers’ information for at least a year after their death.