Some people think of identity theft as an obscure problem that will never affect them, but perhaps this will change their minds: This year, three women allegedly obtained stolen identities and filed more than 1,000 fraudulent tax returns and received more than $4 million in federal tax refunds. The indictment of Tamaica Hoskins, Roberta Pyatt and Lashelia Alexander was unsealed Oct. 30, according to a news release from the Department of Justice.
You read that right: Three women, hundreds of stolen identities, $4 million, all in a few months’ time. Add that to all the other instances just like it, and yeah, identity theft is clearly a huge, costly issue. A report from the Government Accountability Office says the IRS lost $5.2 billion to identity theft during tax year 2013, despite having prevented $24.2 billion in fraudulent returns. Victims have to wait months, sometimes years, to receive their refunds, which can cause unnecessary strain on taxpayers’ finances.
Hoskins and Pyatt, of Phenix City, Ala., allegedly obtained the stolen identities and filed the returns, though it’s unclear how they came by the stolen IDs (the Department of Justice and U.S. District Court, Middle District of Alabama, where the case will be prosecuted, did not immediately respond to requests for more information.)
The two are accused of opening bank accounts to receive tax preparation fees and forge tax refunds using checks provided by their banks. Together with Alexander, of Columbus, Ga., Hoskins and Pyatt then cashed the fake checks at a variety of banks and businesses. They’re facing a lot of prison time — up to 20 years for each conspiracy to commit wire fraud count, up to 10 years in prison for each theft of public money count, and a mandatory 2 years for the aggravated identity theft counts — in addition to fines and restitution.
Identity-theft-related tax fraud is increasingly common, and victims often don’t know their identities have been stolen until they go to file their tax returns and find out someone beat them to it. Still, consumers should regularly monitor their credit for signs of identity theft, so if you realize someone has stolen it, you can take steps necessary to prevent further damage, like putting a fraud alert or a credit freeze on your credit reports and requesting an Identity Protection PIN from the IRS. An easy way to watch for identity theft is to check your credit scores, because a sudden score drop may be a sign of fraud. You can get two of your credit scores for free with updates every 30 days on Credit.com.
More on Identity Theft:
- Identity Theft: What You Need to Know
- How Can You Tell If Your Identity Has Been Stolen?
- What Should I Do If I’m a Victim of Identity Theft?