MARQUETTE - With tax season arriving, the Internal Revenue Service is alerting area residents to the dangers of identity theft when it comes to their tax returns.
"We've got a lot of identity theft going on," said IRS Special Agent Cindy Burnett, who works in the IRS' criminal investigation department and covers the Upper Peninsula and northern Lower Peninsula.
Specifically, Burnett warned against scammers who contact people via email or over social networking sites claiming to be from the IRS and asking for personal information.
"Text messages, even on Facebook, that kind of stuff IRS would never do," Burnett said during a recent visit to Marquette. "IRS would send you a letter on official letterhead, and then you would initiate the next contact. If you don't answer them they'll probably come knocking on your door."
Burnett said if contacted via the Internet or text message by someone claiming to be an IRS agent, people should immediately inform the IRS by reporting the suspicious email or text to email@example.com.
Burnett also warned against emails or texts that tell people to visit web sites that have IRS in the URL, but do not end .gov. The IRS' official web site is www.irs.gov.
People looking to steal an identity will often use it to file a fraudulent tax return, something Burnett said could go unnoticed until tax time rolls around.
"The main thing (identity thieves) want to do with that (information) is file a tax return," she said. "If they steal your Social Security number and your name, they want to get a refund before you find out and take the money. That happens a lot."
Burnett said the IRS stopped more than $20 billion in fraudulent tax returns last year, which includes identity theft as well as other types of fraud.
According to Burnett, the most important thing to do to protect yourself from filing a fraudulent return this tax season is to look at your return before you sign it, even if it is prepared by a licensed tax accountant.
"You, the taxpayer, is ultimately responsible for what goes on that tax return," Burnett said. "You're going to sign the return."
Any interest or penalties accrued as a result of filing a fraudulent return - whether the error was intentional or not - is borne by the taxpayer.
"Every scrupulous preparer, every honest preparer will walk you through your tax return. They will ask you, 'Is this correct? Did you bring me the current information?' They won't put anything on your return to help you out. They're just going to prepare your return for you," she said.
Burnett said for those looking to file their own returns, www.irs.gov offers a free way to file before the tax deadline.
She also said it is important for honest taxpayers to know the IRS is chasing tax evaders and tax criminals.
"We want people to know, honest taxpayers to know, that we're really out there and that we are going after those people who are cheating," Burnett said. "As an honest taxpayer, it's a good thing to know that people aren't getting away with this."
Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org