Identity theft and fraud protection for your finances, personal info, and devices.
Do You Think Someone Stole Your Tax Refund Check?
Tax filing season is notorious for criminals that exploit the digital systems that process tax refunds. With as little as your name, Social Security number (SSN), and birthdate identity thieves can steal your tax refund check.
If you think someone stole your tax refund check, you should immediately:
- Verify if you have a stolen tax refund check
- Check the status of your return
- Identify ghost tax preparers and IRS impersonators
- Proceed in case of a tax identity theft
- Protect your financial information in the future
Stolen Identity Refund Fraud (SIRF) perpetrators race to file false online tax returns early so they can beat legitimate taxpayers to it.
As Eva Velasquez, president of the California-based Identity Theft Resource Center, put it:
“It’s one of the most lucrative ways that thieves can monetize our identity credentials."
These scammers don't just target vulnerable groups like the elderly or grieving families. Anyone with an SSN could potentially be a victim of tax refund fraud.
How does tax-related identity theft occur?
According to the IRS, tax-related identity theft occurs when someone uses your stolen PII (including your social security number) to file a tax return and claim a fraudulent refund (i.e., one that’s not theirs).
You may not know you’re an identity theft victim until the IRS rejects your legitimate tax return or flags it as suspicious. In fact, many Americans don’t realize they’re caught in a tax scam until they’re hit with a notice from the IRS.
→ Note: The IRS: Criminal Investigation identifies fraudulent claims for tax refunds under the Questionable Refund Program (QRP). Source: IRS:CO 2021 Annual Report
7 Warning Signs of Tax-Related Identity Theft
- You get a letter from the IRS asking about a suspicious tax return you did not file.
- You can’t e-file your tax return because someone has already filed one using your social security number.
- You receive a tax transcript in the mail that you did not request.
- You get an IRS notice about an online account that was created in your name.
- You receive an IRS notice that your existing online account has been accessed or disabled though you took no action.
- IRS records show you received wages or other income from an employer you never worked for.
- You were assigned an Employer Identification Number (EIN), but you did not request one.
The IRS says these are the most common red flags of tax-related identity theft.
How To Find Out If Someone Stole Your Tax Return
The IRS takes less than 21 days to process refund checks for nine out of ten tax filings. Early e-filers who claimed their Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) or Additional Child Tax Credit (ACTC) may expect their refund by March.
Has it been over six weeks since you filed your paper return or 21 days since your e-filing? Consider reaching the IRS phone or walk-in representatives. If not, follow these steps before you request a refund trace:
Use the "Where’s My Refund" status checker on IRS.gov
You can check the status of your tax refund 24 hours after the IRS receives your e-filed return or about four weeks after mailing your paper return. Just head over to the Get Refund Status portal on the IRS.gov website.
To find the status of your refund and verify your identity, you’ll be asked to provide personal information such as your Social Security Number. It’s advisable to not do this on a shared device or public Wi-Fi.
From there, you’ll see which of the three processing stages your refund is currently in: Received, Adjusted, or Completed.
Received or Adjusted means you’ll need to wait a bit longer for your refund — the IRS may not be done reviewing or processing it yet. Since the status checker is usually updated no more than once a day, a daily refresh can pull up the latest information.
Now, if you see a Completed status, check to see how your refund is being delivered.
- Paper checks should arrive within six weeks of your return being accepted.
- Direct deposit refunds generally hit your account within 21 days of the IRS accepting your return.
The IRS website instructs taxpayers to wait up to five days after these windows before claiming a lost or stolen tax refund.
Don’t want to fill in your personal information online? You can also complete this process on the IRS2Go mobile app or contact an IRS representative by phone at 800-829-1954.
Ensure your tax return filing is error-free
The IRS won’t issue tax refunds for incomplete or inaccurate returns. They’ll contact you by mail if they need more information to process your return or need corrections before a final review.
How to reduce errors when filing your tax return:
- Verify and use the correct SSNs
- Match names to those listed on SSNs
- Choose the right filing status with the Interactive Tax Assistant (ITA)
- Rely only tax preparation software for all calculations
- Identify eligible tax credits and deductions along with the required IRS forms
- Enter correct routing and bank account information for direct deposit refunds
- Choose electronic filing so you may sign digitally before you hit submit
- Renew your individual tax identification number (ITIN) on time
→ Pro Tip: Use The IRS interactive tool for all tax-related FAQs.
Other errors that may cause prolonged processing times include incorrect Recovery Rebate Credits or miscalculating your home office deduction.
Expect longer processing times for additional exemptions
Certain forms and tax credits take longer to process. For example, if you filed Form 8379 (Injured Spouse Allocation), your return could take up to 14 weeks to process.
Similarly, if you claimed the EITC or ACTC, you’ll need to wait until after February 15 to receive a tax refund.
If you find yourself in any of these situations, hang tight. Your tax refund might still be on its way.
But the same may not be true if you’re a victim of tax-related identity theft.
You may or may not get a written notice explaining the situation from the IRS. So it’s up to you to take action immediately to remedy the situation.
Request a refund trace from the IRS
If you think your refund check has been lost or stolen, the IRS can help track down your check or find the financial institution your direct deposit went to.
If your filing status is:
- Single, head of household, or married filing separately: Call the IRS Refund Hotline (800-829-1954) or begin a refund trace using the prompts on Where’s My Refund? or the IRS2Go mobile app.
- Married filing jointly: You can’t use the automatic refund trace. Complete Form 3911 (Taxpayer Statement Regarding Refund) and mail it to the IRS like you would normally file a paper tax return.
After the IRS does their sleuthing, they’ll process your missing refund according to how you requested your money.
- If you opted for a paper check refund and it hasn’t been cashed, the IRS will cancel the original check and issue you a replacement tax refund check. You should receive your replacement within six to eight weeks.
- If your check has been cashed, the Bureau of the Fiscal Service (BFS) will provide you with a claim package that includes a copy of the cashed check. You’ll need to follow the instructions to complete a claim package.
What to expect from the Bureau of Fiscal Services (BFS):
The BFS will review your claim to compare your signature to the signature on the canceled check. Then they’ll decide whether to issue you an IRS replacement check or open an investigation.
→ Heads up: the BFS review can take up to six weeks to complete.
If the BFS determines the check was forged, you’ll receive an IRS replacement refund check. Then they’ll notify the IRS about the situation. But if your claim is denied, the BFS will send you a denial letter with instructions for how to appeal their decision.
If your tax refund was supposed to be deposited directly into your bank account, the BFS will send your financial institution a letter within six weeks of your refund trace. Then they’ll try to verify where the deposit went.
Did Someone Steal Your Tax Refund Check? Do This, ASAP.
- First, report the fraud to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) at IdentityTheft.gov.
- Their wizard will walk you through the reporting process, and then you’ll receive a free recovery plan.
- Check your credit report (you’re entitled to one free credit report annually).
- Consider placing a freeze on your credit report. These actions will help you spot suspicious activity and prevent fraudsters from doing any more damage.
Then you’ll need to:
1. File Form 14039 to alert the IRS to tax-related identity theft
Completing Form 14039 (Identity Theft Affidavit) tells the IRS that your social security number has been compromised and someone used it to file a fraudulent tax return.
You’ll need to provide information relating to the affected year’s taxes and the last return you filed before you became a victim of identity theft.
2. Mail Form 14039 to the IRS with proof of ID
The IRS offers the option to mail or fax your Form 14039. Attach this form to the back of your paper tax return and send it to the IRS location you normally file taxes at.
Along with the completed form, also submit copies of your driver's license, passport, Social Security card, or any government-issued ID card.
Did You Receive an IRS Notice About a Fraudulent Tax Return?
Include a copy of that letter with Form 14039. Then mail your package to the address given in your official notice.
You should also request a copy of the fraudulent return. The IRS will acknowledge your request within 30 days of receipt, and you’ll receive a copy of the return within 90 days. Just be aware that some information on the return may be masked/redacted.
Verify your identity with the IRS
When the IRS deals with tax scams and suspicious tax return filings, they may send you a form to verify your identity. The IRS only sends these notices by mail. They will never call or email you to request that you verify your identity.
Once you receive one of these notices, you’ll need to call the number in the letter to verify your identity or use the IRS Identity Verification Service (https://idverify.irs.gov).
You’ll need to provide your:
- Full name, date of birth and contact information
- Social Security number or ITIN
- Previous tax returns along with other supporting documents (such as W-2s, 1099s, and Schedules A and C if you filed them)
This is a good time to see the benefits of keeping tax records all year round in action.
Protect Your Identity Against Tax Scammers
If someone’s stolen your identity, you’ll want to protect yourself, your business, and your financial accounts from any more damage.
- Get an Identity Protection PIN or IP PIN. This IRS-issued 6-digit PIN offers additional protections for your social security number when it comes to your tax return.
- Change all your passwords. Your PII could have been exposed during a data breach, and now it’s available for cybercriminals to take advantage of. Replace all your passwords with stronger passphrases containing a variety of upper/lower case letters, numbers, punctuation, and characters.
- Beware of phone and email phishing. These types of social engineering attacks trick people into giving out PII under false pretenses. IRS scams usually begin when victims receive a phone call from an “IRS representative” or an email that appears to come from the IRS asking to verify their information to process their refund. The victims hand over their PII, and the fraudsters score everything they need to steal their tax refund check.
- Consider identity theft protection. Solutions like Identity Guard will monitor the Dark Web to ensure your passwords, Social Security number, financial accounts, and other sensitive information aren’t at risk. They’ll also alert you to potential fraud so you can get ahead of scammers.
Follow these best practices to file taxes securely and safeguard your PII and tax refunds. Finally, consider filing online or via a CPA to minimize the time between filing and receiving your tax refund checks.