Guard your Social Security number from thieves, federal officials warn

Guard your Social Security number from thieves, federal officials warn

With Florida now accounting for a fifth of the nation’s tax-related identity thefts, South Floridians have to guard their Social Security numbers from outsiders — even from employees at medical offices who may sell the information, federal officials said Wednesday evening at a town hall meeting in Pembroke Pines.

Most identity theft now stems from insiders stealing information at workplaces instead of thieves snatching purses or Dumpster diving, said Cindy Liebes, head of the Southeast Regional Office of the Federal Trade Commission. That means consumers have to be extra vigilant in giving out their Social Security numbers — even to legitimate places of business, she said.

Some unscrupulous employees may ask for the Social Security numbers to then sell the information. Identity theft has switched from criminals stealing credit cards to buy merchandise to fraudsters paying for Social Security numbers so they can file federal tax returns for hefty refunds, Liebes added.

“Thieves are stealing hundreds of millions of dollars in refunds. I was stunned,” said U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, who helped conduct the town hall meeting Wednesday evening with the FTC and the Internal Revenue Service at the Southwest Regional Library. There was another town hall meeting in Boca Raton to alert South Floridians to guard their identity.

The congresswoman will join Sen. Bill Nelson at another identity theft seminar at 2 p.m. Thursday at the Sunny Isles Beach Government Commission Chambers, 18070 Collins Ave.

Both have been national leaders in proposing legislation to combat identity theft. One reason is that it hits close to home, Wasserman-Schultz said.

“Our state alone has about a fifth of the nation’s victims who couldn’t immediately file their taxes last year because a crook beat them to it,” she said. In fact, South Florida has the worst identity theft of the nation’s largest metro areas, the FTC has found.

Last week, Wasserman Schultz proposed a bipartisan bill that would increase the penalties of those caught filing fraudulent tax returns using stolen identities.

Meanwhile, Nelson said Wednesday that he plans to re-introduce a bill that would make it a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison, to use someone else’s Social Security or taxpayer identification number to file a fraudulent tax return. He would also include in the bill a new provision that would speed up tax refunds to victims of identity theft.

Right now, the IRS said it takes victims an average of 180 days to get their refund. Nelson wants to cut that in half so victims can get refunds in 90 days or less.

“ID thieves are costing hard-working taxpayers a lot of time and money,” the senator said in a written statement. “We’re trying to put a stop to that.”

Tens of thousands of people in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties couldn’t file their taxes last year because thieves had already filed in their name first.

So far, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in South Florida has charged more than 100 people with filing fraudulent federal tax returns that resulted in the Internal Revenue Service sending out about $92 million in refund checks or debit cards.

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