ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE : Money Looking for a Home

Southern California is in recession. Many of those lucky enough to remain employed have had to switch jobs or forgo raises. And yet thousands of taxpayers have moved without telling the Internal Revenue Service where to send their refunds? Strange days indeed.

The Laguna Niguel district of the IRS covers Orange County and four other counties, plus pockets of Los Angeles County. District officials say they are looking for more than 10,000 taxpayers, whom the federal government owes a total of $6.2 million. Those figures are the highest in the nation.

Though returning the money is part of the IRS' job, the agency deserves credit for taking the extra step. In many cases the Postal Service could not find the address that the taxpayer had given; IRS officials, rather than simply shrugging and depositing the money in the fund to offset the federal deficit, are continuing the search.

The IRS says the well-known mobility of Southern Californians is one reason for the undeliverable mail: People just pick up and move without telling the postal or tax people. Still, it's one thing to leave behind an easy chair that's seen better days and quite another to leave behind a pile of dollars. The refunds range up to $3,000, with an average of about $650.

Some refunds do not get mailed at all, because the filers have supplied invalid Social Security numbers. Often it's just a matter of numbers being transposed erroneously, but some returns are phony, filed by people fraudulently trying to establish residence in the United States.

Those taxpayers who know they should have received refunds should contact an IRS office. A spokeswoman says the agency wants to give the money away . . . "contrary to our image, of course." There's a message here for cynics about the IRS. The tax collector really does have a heart.

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