Significant problems remain with efforts by the Internal Revenue Service to identify and prevent tax refund fraud by prisoners after the passage of a 2008 law aimed at curbing such issues, according to a new government report.

The report, by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, found that despite the passage of the Inmate Tax Fraud Prevention Act of 2008, refund fraud committed by prisoners is increasing at a significant rate. The number of fraudulent prisoner tax returns identified by the IRS has more than doubled from 18,103 tax returns in calendar year 2004 to 44,944 tax returns in calendar year 2009. Fraudulent refunds claimed rose from $68.1 million to $295.1 million during the same period.

“More than two years ago, Congress gave the IRS the authority to share tax information with the Federal Bureau of Prisons,” said Senate Finance Committee ranking member Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, in a statement. “The IRS and the Federal Bureau of Prisons still don’t have an agreement in place to share information. Meanwhile, the number of inmates’ false returns and refunds continues to rise. This signals that prisoner tax fraud is a low priority for the federal government. The agencies need to take action and correct that impression. While they wait, taxpayers are picking up a growing tab for prisoner tax fraud.”

TIGTA found that, as of October 2010, the IRS had not completed the required agreements to allow the IRS to disclose prisoner tax return information to prison officials. As a result, no information has been disclosed to either the Federal Bureau of Prisons or State Departments of Corrections.

In addition, the Calendar Year 2009 Report to Congress on prisoner fraud is incomplete. The report stated the IRS identified 44,944 false or fraudulent prisoner tax returns during calendar year 2009. However, the processes the IRS uses to identify prisoner tax returns may result in the IRS understating the amount of prisoner fraud. Finally, TIGTA’s review of the process used by the IRS’s Criminal Investigation Division to compile the 2009 prisoner data file identified a lack of managerial oversight to ensure the accuracy and reliability of this file.

TIGTA recommended that the IRS work with the Treasury Department to seek legislation to extend the period of time the IRS has to disclose prisoner tax return data to the Federal Bureau of Prisons and state prison officials. TIGTA also recommended that the commissioner of the IRS’s Wage and Investment Division revise the annual report to provide Congress with a complete assessment of potential prisoner fraud. TIGTA said the IRS should ensure that all tax returns filed by prisoners are processed through the Electronic Fraud Detection System and receive a prisoner indicator. The report also recommended that the IRS revise prisoner filters to validate the wages and withholding associated with prisoners incarcerated for a year who filed tax returns claiming a refund. The IRS should also develop a process to assess the reliability (accuracy and completeness) of data received from federal and state prisons, TIGTA suggested.

The IRS agreed with two of TIGTA’s five recommendations and partially agreed with two recommendations. The IRS did not indicate its agreement or disagreement with one of the recommendations, on providing Congress with a complete assessment of potential prisoner fraud by revising the annual report to include the total number of tax returns filed by prisoners, number selected for fraud screening, and the number verified as false or fraudulent.

However, the IRS noted hat it would continue to report to Congress all of the prisoner information that is required to be reported by the Inmate Tax Fraud Prevention Act of 2008, such as the number of false and fraudulent returns associated with prisoner filings. In addition, the IRS said it would respond to future Congressional requests pertaining to prisoner- related fraud.

The new report is available here.

TIGTA issued a report last September saying the IRS needs to subject tax returns filed by prisoners to greater scrutiny for fraud (see IRS Needs to Better Screen Prisoner Tax Returns). The report was largely about how expanded access to wage and withholding information could improve the identification of fraudulent tax returns, but it noted that the majority of tax returns the IRS identifies as being filed by prisoners are not being sent to screening to assess fraud potential.

TIGTA’s review identified 253,929 (88 percent) of the 287,918 tax returns filed by a prisoner as of March 24, 2010, were not selected for screening. Of those tax returns not screened, 48,887 individuals had no wage information reported to the IRS by employers.

These 48,887 prisoners claimed refunds totaling more than $130 million including Earned Income
Tax Credit claims of $78.5 million. Some of these refunds may have been stopped by other compliance activities. For example, TIGTA determined that the IRS prevented the issuance of nearly $18.1 million in EITC claims for 4,532 of the 48,887 prisoner tax returns.

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