Last week, you ran an article about a Medford couple that reported their tax returns has been fraudulently filed as part of an $11 million scam. The article said some of the guys were sentenced and ordered to repay the money in restitution. Since I am sure they will not return all the money, are the victims out some or all of their money? If so, how can a person protect themselves? What other exposures do we have?
— Chuck R., Phoenix
Restitution is a thorny issue in Oregon, as the state has struggled in the past to get even a significant portion of the money ordered by courts to be paid to victims. This case is even thornier than most, given that the men are Nigerian citizens and likely to be deported at the end of their prison time.
Oregon has various options to pursue restitution payments when defendants are on probation or released from incarceration; while they remain in prison, payments are not usually mandated. The court typically lays out a payment schedule, and almost just as typically its deadlines are missed.
Kevin Sonoff, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Oregon, said the only named victim in the case with the Nigerian nationals was the U.S. government, meaning that no financial losses were suffered by individual taxpayers. He also said the process of recovering the funds could take years.
"Especially with foreign nationals, it can take even longer," he said.
As for exposures, your risk hangs on the availability of your personal information. Anywhere your Social Security number might be found is a potential liability. As an article from NerdWallet on the Equifax breach recently addressed, people who gain the ability to impersonate you through your personal information are enabled for all kinds of mischief beyond stealing money. A fraudster can add to your criminal record if they give your Social Security number during a run-in with the law. They can file for bankruptcy or transfer property and assets in your name.
The IRS has a few tips for what you can control to ward off invasions of privacy. One is using strong passwords and secure networks with firewall protection. You should also avoid all phone calls or electronic communication claiming to be on behalf of the IRS; the agency says it does not initiate contact with taxpayers through any form of electronic communication. Report fraudulent attempts by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 1-800-366-4484.
As concerning as the details of the frauds are, perhaps even more unnerving is how they were enabled — by the hacker who provided the taxpayer information. As careful as you may be with your personal information, an equally important role is played by the employers and agencies whose security measures we all inevitably have to trust.
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