Identity Theft

What is identity theft?

Identity theft is defined as “a fraud that is committed or attempted, using a person’s identifying information without authority.” ID theft may involve stealing someone’s Social Security number (SSN), name, bank account, or credit card numbers, and using that information without permission. According to the IRS Global Identity Theft Report issued May 31, 2014, the IRS suspected and stopped more than 3.6 million returns filed by identity thieves in the 2014 filing season (through May 31, 2014.)

Online identity theft is called phishing. A phishing scam involves fraudsters sending email messages to trick unsuspecting victims into revealing personal and financial information (such as credit card numbers, account usernames and passwords, SSNs, etc.). Some identity theft starts with something as simple as someone stealing a wallet or intercepting/reading your regular mail.

Tax-related ID theft can affect you in two main ways:  

  1. Someone uses stolen identification information to file a fraudulent tax return and get a refund
  2. Someone uses stolen information to obtain employment, which can make it seem like you had more income than you actually earned

For information about phishing scams, see What are my resources? below.

How will you know if you are a victim of tax-related ID theft?

You may find out you are a victim of tax-related ID theft when you try to file your tax return or start getting notices from the IRS about your tax account. 

The most common indicators are:

  • You try to file electronically, but the IRS rejects your return because another return using your SSN is already filed. 
  • You receive an IRS notice showing you received wages from somewhere you never worked.
  • You receive an IRS letter indicating one or more tax returns have been filed using your SSN.
  • You receive a balance due notice, refund offset notice, or have collection actions taken against you for a tax year when you didn’t file a return or receive a refund.

There are several steps you may need to take. The right ones for you are based on what’s happening with your tax account. 

You tried to file electronically, but the IRS said someone already filed using your Social Security number (SSN)

If you can’t file your tax return electronically because someone has already used your SSN to file a return, you must file a paper return, along with an affidavit (see below) explaining that you are a victim of identity theft. You will need to:

  • Fill out an IRS Form 14039, Identity Theft Affidavit 
  • Print a paper copy of your tax return
  • Make a clear and legible photocopy of at least one document to verify your identity:  passport, driver’s license, Social Security card, or other valid U.S. federal or state government issued identification
  • Submit your tax return, IRS Form 14039, and legible photocopy of one document to verify your identity to the IRS at the appropriate address for your state.

The IRS sent a letter saying you didn’t report all your income on your tax return

If you get a letter that says you didn’t report all of your income and you don’t recognize the names of the companies where the income was earned, it’s possible someone used your SSN for employment purposes. You should: 

  • Respond to the letter as soon as possible, following the instructions in the notice
  • Make a clear and legible photocopy of at least one document to verify your identity:  passport, driver’s license, Social Security card, or other valid U.S. federal or state government issued identification
  • Fill out a IRS Form 14039, Identity Theft Affidavit 
  • Submit your response and documents to the address indicated on the IRS letter

Your information has been stolen, and you want to protect your tax account 

If you know your information has been compromised due to a lost or stolen wallet or for some other reason, you should alert the IRS. This allows the IRS to take steps to secure your account. 

The IRS has a specialized unit dealing with identity theft - you can also contact them.

Identity Protection Specialized Unit
Toll-free phone number: 1 (800) 908-4490
Hours: Monday through Friday 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. local time (Alaska and Hawaii use Pacific Time)

Note: If you’ve made a police report, you can submit that to the IRS instead of IRS Form 14039.

Other actions you can take to protect yourself if your identity may have been stolen

Your refund is delayed due to ID theft and it’s causing a financial hardship

If you are facing a financial hardship such as an imminent eviction, utility cutoff, inability to pay for medical needs, etc., you should contact the Taxpayer Advocate Service

For this tax return

If someone else filed a tax return using your SSN: 

  • You cannot file electronically and will need to submit a paper return. 
  • An IRS employee will review both returns to determine which is from you and which is from the identity thief.
  • The IRS will then adjust your account to reflect only the correct information. 
  • The IRS review can take 180 days or more, so if you’re expecting a refund, it will be delayed.

For future tax returns

When the IRS determines you’re the rightful owner of the SSN and has processed your return, it may assign you an IRS Identity Protection PIN (IP PIN) to use on your future federal tax returns. This is an extra layer of security; without a valid IP PIN, no return will be processed to your account. 

Social Security benefits

If someone is using your SSN to work or file a fraudulent return in your name, it can affect any Social Security benefits you receive. You may get a notice from the SSA that your benefits have been reduced or stopped because a federal tax return was filed showing you earned wages or self-employment income. 

If this happens to you, contact the SSA to find out how to correct your Social Security account. You should also file  IRS Form 14039, Identity Theft Affidavit, with the IRS. If you’re not required to file a federal return, and someone has filed using your identifying information, the IRS will need to correct your account. Filing the affidavit will also notify the IRS to add additional security measures to your account. 

Have a different tax issue?  Browse common issues and situations at Get Help.

Is your tax problem more complex?  If your issue is causing you financial hardship, you have tried repeatedly and are not receiving a response from the IRS, or you feel your taxpayer rights are being violated, consider contacting Taxpayer Advocate Service TAS.

Do you feel that you need help from a tax professional but can’t afford one? You may be eligible for representation from an attorney, certified public accountant (CPA), or enrolled agent associated with a Low Income Taxpayer Clinic.

Last modified June 8, 2017