Income tax season starts Jan. 31 for individual taxpayers, and while many taxpayers might not be in a hurry to file their returns, it's a sure bet that criminals are poised to push the send button and transmit bogus documents.

Income tax season starts Jan. 31 for individual taxpayers, and while many taxpayers might not be in a hurry to file their returns, it's a sure bet that criminals are poised to push the send button and transmit bogus documents.

Using the victim's Social Security number, they snag a refund before the legitimate taxpayer files.

A 2013 Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration report found that while the IRS is stopping more fraudulent returns, it issued an estimated $3.6 billion in potentially bogus 2011 refunds.

The problem of tax-related identity theft continues to grow, along with identity theft overall. Take the recent Target and Neiman Marcus breaches.

"There is nothing a large company can do to completely protect itself," said Jonathan Bochese, a lawyer at Jacksonville, Fla.-based Tax Defense Network, a tax resolution firm. "There are people out there trying to hack websites. If a database exists, someone can get into it."

Likewise, although there are measures people can take to keep from becoming a victim of identity theft, there's no way to completely remove the risk.

What's a legitimate taxpayer to do? Beat the crooks to it.

"If you file your return as close to opening day as possible, it minimizes the chance the fraudulent return will get there first," Bochese said. "The IRS will process the return they get first."

Bochese said a mailed return can take 10 to 20 days to enter the IRS' system, so e-filing is advised.

If the IRS becomes aware you have been a victim of tax return fraud, it will send you a letter, not an email. The IRS never sends emails, Bochese said.

The IRS has issued six-digit identity protection PINs to taxpayers who have been victimized in past years. This year, the IRS expects to provide more than 1.2 million taxpayers with PINs. For the second tax season in a row, the number of PINs has nearly doubled from the year before. The PIN allows these individuals to avoid delays in filing returns and receiving refunds.

The agency said this month it has ramped up its efforts to combat the problem by assigning more than 3,000 IRS employees to work on identity-theft related issues. In addition, the IRS provides training to more than 35,000 employees who work with taxpayers to recognize identity theft indicators and victims.

From 2011 through November 2013, the IRS reported, it stopped 14.6 million suspicious returns and protected more than $50 billion in fraudulent refunds. This year, it's also increasing both the number and efficiency of the identity theft filters that are used to identify potentially fraudulent returns tied to identity theft before it processes a return and releases any refund.

While identity theft is a huge issue that will continue to increase, Bochese's advice is not to be fearful, but to be aware.