Reports of identification theft and other fraud cases have recently jumped nearly 50 percent nationwide as the federal tax season gets underway, a Federal Trade Commission representative reported Friday after meeting with U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz and local law enforcement officials in Fort Lauderdale.
"We are seeing a huge uptick," said FTC's Southeast Regional Director Cindy Liebes after discussing South Florida's problem with many taxpayers not able to file returns before someone has already taken theirs to get a refund.
Nationwide, weekly reports of identity theft and fraud case have recently skyrocketed around the nation from 35,000 complaints a week to 50,000, she said.
"The vast majority of the increase is due to consumers filing identity theft complaints, and specifically complaints dealing with tax or wage related fraud," Liebes said.
Last year, the Internal Revenue Servicehad about 250,000 confirmed cases of identity theft -- with more reports still to be investigated.
People who can't file tax returns because their identity has been stolen should report the theft to their local police as well as the Internal Revenue Service, Liebes said.
One Miramar resident said an officer there turned her away and told her to go to the IRS.
That should not have happened, Liebes said.
Sgt. Jay Leiner of the Broward Sheriff's Office said his agency wants to work more with the IRS and have the ability to prosecute in state court those identify theft cases involving the IRS. Wasserman-Schultz (D-Weston) and Sen. Bill Nelson(D-Florida) have a bill before Congress to give local police the authority.
"We can start charging at the state level," stopping bad guys from stealing more identities, Leiner said.
He said as local law enforcement cracks down on identity theft gangs they move to another target -- and filing fake tax returns seem to easier for them because they can file online.
Wasserman-Schultz said she is also working to toughen fines and prison sentences to discourage identity theft. In some cases, thieves may face only 18 months behind bars, she said.
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