The Internal Revenue Service is being urged to move up its W-2 filing deadline to January 31 and to lower the threshold for requiring electronic filing of W-2 returns in an effort to curb the growing trend of identity theft related tax fraud.
A new report from the Government Accountability Office suggested that additional actions such as these could help the IRS combat the threat of tax refund fraud. Based on a preliminary analysis, the IRS estimates it paid $5.2 billion in fraudulent identity theft refunds in the 2013 filing season, while preventing $24.2 billion in such refunds, based on what it could detect. The full extent of the fraudulent refunds is unknown, however, because of the challenges endemic in detecting identity theft-related refund fraud.
Identity theft-related refund fraud takes advantage of the IRS’s “look-back” compliance model, the GAO pointed out. Under this model, rather than holding refunds until completing all of its compliance checks, the IRS issues the tax refund after conducting selected reviews.
While there are no simple solutions, one option is earlier matching of employer-reported wage information to taxpayers’ returns before issuing tax refunds, the GAO noted. The IRS currently cannot do such matching because employers' wage data (from Form W-2s) are not available until months after the IRS issues most tax refunds. As a result, the IRS begins matching employer-reported W-2 data to tax returns in July, after tax season. But if the IRS had access to W-2 data earlier—through accelerated W-2 deadlines and increased electronic filing of W-2s—it could conduct pre-refund matching and identify discrepancies to prevent the issuance of billions in fraudulent refunds, according to the GAO report.
The Treasury Department proposed earlier this year that Congress accelerate W-2 deadlines to January 31. However, the IRS has not yet fully assessed the impacts of this proposal, the GAO noted, and without this assessment, Congress does not have the information it would need to determine the merits of such a significant change to W-2 deadlines or the use of pre-refund W-2 matching. Such an assessment is consistent with the IRS’s strategic plan, which calls for analytics-based decisions, and would help the IRS ensure effective use of resources, the GAO pointed out.