The news wasn’t that Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz was the victim of tax fraud, although irony like that can be startling. Certainly, when the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee falls victim to something that could have been prevented with a little reform, eyebrows are raised.
No, the news was that this information came to light as an afterthought in an editorial board meeting months after the fact.
You might say identity theft and cyber fraud have
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become a part of the wallpaper of life in the 21st century, but that would be true only if wallpaper had a habit of peeling away and sticking to you in ways that keep you from moving.
To recap, Chaffetz told the combined editorial boards of KSL and the Deseret News this week that he learned someone else had used his name and Social Security number to file a tax return before he could.
Chaffetz said he told the IRS commissioner of his experience. “He said, ‘This is happening by the millions. You’re not unique. Don’t feel special.’”
“Special” may not be the right word to describe the emotions association with identity theft, especially when your government is the unwitting conduit.
If news is defined as something unusual or out of the ordinary, and if the IRS commissioner says having your identity stolen on a tax return isn’t unique, you shouldn’t stop the presses when a member of Congress is the victim.
But I’m guessing most Americans would catch the real news here, which is that somehow, in a world where everything from our recipes to our bank accounts to our very identities are stored in some invisible data cloud, it is considered commonplace to have it all stolen.
We ought to expect more from our government.
That sentence sounded absurd as I wrote it, but there was a time not long ago when it made perfect sense.
Schemes to defraud the IRS aren’t new. In 1915, newspapers told the tale of Deputy Collector of Internal Revenue John V. Diefenthaler and his accomplice, a clerk named Mary A. Duley, who were arrested and charged in connection with selling the names and addresses of 12,000 income tax payers for 3 cents each.
They sound like rank amateurs today, but then how would you describe the amateur status of government officials who seem surprised such efforts continue today?
The Government Accountability Office and the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration both issued reports in recent years warning the IRS that it’s security was lax. This was well before the agency acknowledged this year that about 330,000 taxpayer accounts were stolen through its online digital service known as “get transcript.”
About half the criminal attempts to breach this service were successful. The perps may have been in Russia or other parts of the globe. Your imagination is as good as mine in figuring out where the stolen money might have gone.
In the realm of government and politics, budget cuts tend to be the first choice of excuses when shortcomings are exposed. Just consider how many private businesses have had to deal with budget cuts in recent years. My guess is not many of them still use Microsoft XP to guard the till, as the Washington Times said the IRS does.
Or as Chaffetz puts it, “You get the sense that one good trip to Best Buy would have solved half this problem.”
Two victims of the breach, Becky Welborn and Wendy Windrich, have started what they hope will be a class action lawsuit against the IRS, alleging the problems could have been avoided if the agency had just followed the recommendations of auditors. Windrich said a criminal used her personal information to obtain a $9,300 tax refund, according to the complaint.
The truth is the IRS is only a small part of a problem that seems to multiply with each news cycle. Thieves took the personal information of at least 22 million federal employees from the Office of Personnel Management. In the private sector, they credit card information from millions of customers at Target, Home Depot, JP Morgan Chase, Neiman Marcus and on and on. Every breach erodes a bit of public confidence.
“We have very few members of Congress that even understand; who have any clue,” Chaffetz said.
Given how vulnerable we all are, that may be the biggest news flash of all.