A year ago I became a victim of the Identity Theft Pandemic.
I learned of the affliction when my Gulfport tax preparer received notification from IRS that someone already filed for a tax refund.
The antidote took several grueling weeks and it's likely only temporary in this era of cyber hacker mania where Social Security numbers are compromised. Again. And again.
Those weeks included dealing with multiple law enforcement agencies to get a proper police report, so I could submit identity theft affidavits to IRS and to the Federal Trade Commission.
I had to fill out forms for the three credit agencies and the one consumer agency to obtain stacks of reports to check for signs of nefarious use of my personal information.
Every mortgage-lender, credit-card issuer and bank/savings/stock account holder I'd used in the past decade had to be alerted.
I signed up -- free thanks to the health insurance company likely responsible for the hack -- for several years of identity theft watchdogging.
"Just when you think it is safe to go back in the water..." Last but not least, I signed up with IRS for one of those secret Identity Protection PIN numbers and guess what? IRS recently reported that part of that protection system was hacked online.
Akkk! What's a hackee to do? We can laugh. We can cry. We can pull our hair out with frustration. We can take every step available to protect our personal information. But most of all, we have to accept that identity theft is pandemic.
Since I was hacked
In the year since I became a victim, there have been at least another 164 million record breaches with stolen SS numbers. Hey, there's only 323 million Americans. So what does that tell you?
Research is not readily available as to how many individual identity thefts have occurred in the past year. It's also difficult to discern if they were the all-encompassing SS numbers, which can open floodgates to personal theft, or credit card numbers which can be insured and limited monetarily.
The nonprofit Identity Theft Resource Center reports that in 2015, breaches involving Social Security numbers totaled 338. That doesn't sound so bad until you realize just one of those breaches might be the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, which involved the loss of 21 million SS numbers. According to ITRC, the 338 breaches involved 164.4 million records.
In comparison, ITRC reports that in 2015 there were "only" 160 breaches of debit/credit card information. I put only in quotes to emphasis how sadly anesthetized we are becoming to news of hacks. That 160 breaches translates into 800,000 compromised credit/debit cards.
In that number?
If you are one of the 800,000, you hurt, too. But be thankful you didn't have to do the post-footwork that owners of every stolen Social Security number "should" follow. Should is in quotes, because it's amazing how many fellow hackees leave flood gates open by not following identity theft procedures.
Untold millions are infected by this pandemic, and my particular strain of tax return fraud is a top goal of cyber thieves. In today's thieving atmosphere, however, I see no full-blown cure anytime soon.
IRS budgets are tightened by Congress, making it harder to watchdog tax fraud in an era of hypersmart cyber thieves. IRS staff (some themselves hackees) now work closer with the financial/public sector to root out evil-doers. They have taken such steps as creating better pre-refund filters and limiting the number of direct-deposit refunds to the same financial account.
"For the 2015 filing season, the IRS continues to expand these efforts to better protect taxpayers and help victims," IRS claims on its website. "As a result of these aggressive efforts to combat identity theft from 2011 to 2014, the IRS has stopped 19 million suspicious returns and protected more than $63 billion in fraudulent refunds."
Billions more were lost to undetected fraud. Prosecution is up but still has a ways to go. Sadly, the ante is also upped, with some reports stating tax fraud doubles each year. Worst of all for hackees still nursing our first Identity Theft Pandemic is the recent breach news that it is possible to be re-victimized by tax-refund fraud. Let's not let fear rule our lives, but dagnabbit, enough is enough.
Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or c/o Sun Herald Newsroom, P.O. Box 4567, Biloxi, MS 39535-4567.