Miranda and Travis DeOrnellis never expected to serve as St. Francois County’s poster childen of sorts for Tax Identity Theft Awareness Week — but unfortunately that appears to be the case.

Last Sunday the Farmington couple visited Miranda’s parents with the intention of e-filing their 2014 income tax return which her mother fills out for them each year. Everything went through without a hitch … until a few minutes later when the Internal Revenue Service responded to the DeOrnellis with an email conveying some most unwelcome news.

“It stated that our returns were not going to be accepted because both of our Social Security numbers had already been used on a return filed with the IRS for the 2014 year,” Miranda said. “We couldn’t contact the IRS on Sunday of course, so I called first thing Monday morning.”

The IRS told the stay-at-home mom they could physically see the other tax return, but refused to divulge any additional information because they hadn’t yet determined which one of the two returns had been filed fraudulently.

“I called again on Tuesday, but all I got was a message saying that because of the high volume of calls I should call again later,” Miranda said. “On Wednesday I called again and finally got through to a lady. I was on hold with her off and on for about 45 minutes, but I finally got some answers.

“She asked for information on our previous tax returns that we filed — personal information — just so she could do some research on both sides and see which person was actually telling the truth. She came to find out that we really were who we said we were and that we were not trying to file a second return.

“The lady with the IRS couldn’t release any information to me about that return because it wasn’t ours. She couldn’t tell me who had done it or anything like that. Just that our Social Security numbers had been used. Because I was able to verify the information from our previous returns, she automatically put a stop on the other return and flagged it as fraudulent.”

Miranda was told the couple would have to file individual identify theft affidavits and submit a “paper” tax return for 2014. She was also informed that it could take up to 180 days for the IRS to process everything and issue them a refund.

“Everybody looks forward to getting their tax refund back,” she said. “It’s just one of those things. We’ll just have to wait a little bit longer for it this year. We’re a working class family and every little bit helps.”

While Miranda said she was upset about the situation, Travis said he was shocked that something like this had happened to him.

“You hear about it all the time but you never expect it to happen to you,” he said.

Meanwhile, Miranda’s work to stem the potential damage to their personal credit had just begun.

“I contacted the credit bureau and put them on notice to flag anything unusual that might come in now,” she said. “Thankfully nothing had shown up yet, but it’s scary because we have no idea how the thieves got our information. I spent about six-and-a-half hours on the phone Wednesday contacting the different agencies and trying to get everything taken care of.”

Travis added, “I’m just lucky that Miranda stays home with the kids. Otherwise, I would have had to take off work and it would have been a bigger ordeal than what it was. She was able to stay home and make all the contacts and talk to all the people who needed to be talked to and took care of everything to this point.”

It didn’t take long for Miranda and Travis to learn that there are other St. Francois County residents in the same boat they are.

“An officer I spoke to with the Farmington Police Department said that, besides us, he’d already had three other people this year report about somebody filing tax returns with their information,” Miranda said. “After I posted about it on Facebook, a lady contacted me and said that she and her husband had tried to file and got the same email we got. They had to go through everything today that we’ve been going through since Sunday. It’s just a headache.”

The Federal Trade Commission warns that tax season is prime time for identity theft and stresses that the best defense is knowledge.

It is estimated that for 2013, $24 billion in losses were prevented because the IRS was able to detect fraud. Despite this, however, $5 billion was still paid out in fraudulent tax returns.

How does it happen?

— A person can use your social security number to file a fraudulent tax return before you file your own. Instead of sending you your refund, the IRS will send you a letter saying you have filed more than once. The fraudulent filer got the refund.

— A person uses your social security number to get a job. When you file your taxes, the IRS will think you failed to report all of your income because you have no knowledge of the other job you supposedly have.

Remember that the IRS never contacts taxpayers via email, text or social media. If an email is received claiming to be from the IRS, do not open it. Instead, forward it to phishing@irs.gov.

The DeOrnellis said they sincerely wish they could suggest tips to help others avoid tax identity theft, but they’re still at a loss as to how their personal information was stolen in the first place.

“You could say that you should keep your personal information to yourself, but that’s what we already did,” she said. We keep our records at the house. We don’t keep a credit card on hand. That’s just more problems than we would want to have. We mainly use cash for everything except to pay a bill here and there. We have no idea how this happened. No idea.”

For more information on tax identity theft visit the FTC at www.consumer.ftc.gov.

Kevin Jenkins is a reporter for the Daily Journal and can be reached at 573-518-3614 or kjenkins@dailyjournalonline.com

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