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It's a sad state of affairs when Social Security numbers are stolen

It was a month ago when we ran a warning from the Lake Oswego Police Department that citizens were entering into the season where they risked having their Social Security numbers stolen and illegally used to file for taxes. Essentially their own taxes.

Don’t know if anyone was paying attention to that warning but it turned out to be right on the mark.

Since then, the Review’s police blotter has listed almost 30 reports of Lake Oswegans reporting their Social Security numbers were stolen and used to file fraudulent tax returns.

The blotter listings have taken several forms but the message is always the same:

“A man’s Social Security number was stolen and used to file a fraudulent tax return.”

“A woman was advised that someone used her Social Security number to file a tax return.”

“A man’s Social Security number was pilfered and used to file a tax return.”

And the worst: “A widow was horrified to learn that someone had stolen the Social Security number of her dead husband and used it to file taxes.”

One of these identity theft cases is too many and 30 within a month in our community is mind-numbing. Clever criminals are preying on Americans at one of their most vulnerable moments: income tax time. And the insidious nature of the theft seems all too common, all too repetitive and all too despicable.

A month ago we noted that “Thieves are as busy as accountants at this time of year, and that means the theft of Social Security numbers takes a sharp rise in March and April.

“The Internal Revenue Service is improving at catching SSN theft and warning victims before they can be robbed. But in stopping SSN thieves, law enforcement agencies and the IRS can only do so much. The key is not letting yourself become a target: Be careful about any document that has your Social Security number on it.”

However, personal history has shown that people can be more than vigilant with important documents and numbers only to see themselves on the long — and growing list — of identity theft victims.

And when you learn that someone else has used your Social Security number to file for YOUR taxes, there is an overwhelming feeling of despair that starts to consume you, especially when you realize this is a problem that might not go away any time soon.

A call to the Social Security Administration often is prompted by getting an email back from it or a tax program operator like H&R Block indicating taxes already have been filed using your number. The ensuing process is not fun.

First you have to prove that you are who you say you are and not the crook. That involves answering questions only you as the preparer of your previous year’s taxes might know.

Then comes a fraud form, which you fill out and return. Then and only then will SSA officials talk to you, but only up to a point.

They will confirm your number has been used.

They will confirm how many attempts were made before the hacker was successful in filing for taxes using your name and number.

They will confirm that they have at their disposal the biggest arsenal of investigators perhaps in the federal government.

They will confirm that going forward you should be forever careful, check with credit bureaus, banks and brokers constantly to make sure the problem hasn’t spread.

They will confirm that if you are entitled to a tax refund, you will still get it.

And they will confirm that Social Security identity thieves like to share their spoils with other thieves.

However, it’s what they won’t confirm that leaves people concerned and brings out the true “victim”feeling.

They won’t confirm — or ever tell you — whether they arrested the perpetrator in your case.

They won’t confirm what method was used to steal your Social Security number.

They won’t confirm that this isolated incident involving filing your taxes won’t spread and become something much bigger and more painful.

They won’t confirm that the filing was a simple error or anything else.

And they won’t confirm if you can ever stop worrying.

“You definitely see Social Security numbers compromised at this time of year,” Sgt. Tom Hamann of the Lake Oswego Police Department told us in April. “What happens is that people aren’t as careful with their Social Security number as they should be or a company isn’t as careful. Social Security numbers are usually lost through the mail.”

A criminal looks in the right place for a Social Security number, such as previous tax documents or mortgages.

“Depending on the circumstances, some cases are impossible to find how thieves get access to information,” Hamann said. “Sometimes we can refer a case to the FBI, we can refer a case to credit reporting bureaus to send up a flag when they see something wrong, and the IRS has its own investigators.”

None of this is fun. None of this is easy to understand. And none of this can be solved quickly, or perhaps, ever.

We can probably take some solace in the fact that at least 30 Lake Oswego households have fallen victim to this problem. But solace offers little ... well, solace. You can’t take it to the bank with you. You can’t stop worrying and you can’t rest easy any more.

These are bad, slimy low-lifes, if you will. And do what you can do to try to stop them in their tracks.



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