SEBRING - When Carolyn Leamon attempted to file her tax return for 2011 in 2012, she got a bit of a shock, she recalled Tuesday.
She was told that someone else filed for her and her husband and received their refund, she said.
It took about a year and a half to resolve the situation, Leamon said.
"We finally got the check they owed us out of the blue about a year and a half later," she said.
The Leamons are far from being alone in the situation. The Internal Revenue Service investigated 1,492 returns for identity theft fraud in 2013 and recommended prosecutions in 1,257 cases, according to an IRS fact sheet.
Michale Dobzinski, IRS Media Relations Specialist, said the problem "is very serious," in Florida.
In Highlands County, at least 65 people reported identity theft in relation to their tax returns in 2013, said Nell Hays, public information officer for the Highlands County Sheriff's Office. She said even more complaints may have been filed under a different category.
In a nationally released fact sheet, the IRS pointed to the case of Rashia Wilson of Tampa, the self-proclaimed "first lady" of tax fraud, who was sentenced to more than 20 years in prison. She and another person filed false tax returns and received more than $2 million in bogus refunds, the IRS said.
To protect against such fraud, some advise to file early.
Other tips provided by the IRS include:
Avoid carrying your Social Security card or any other documents with that number or your Taxpayer Identification number.
Don't give a business those numbers just because they ask.
Check your credit report every 12 months.
Secure personal information in your home.
Protect your computers with firewalls and anti-spam/virus software.
Don't give out personal information to anyone over the telephone, through the mail or via the Internet, unless you know the receiver or have initiated contact.
Leamon said that nearly two years after she filed she still doesn't know how the criminals stole her identity or if they were ever caught.
"They (the IRS) don't tell you anything," she said. "The only thing we ever found out was that it happened in February (2012)."
Leamon said she and her husband filed a lot of paperwork and made many telephone calls to get the IRS to do anything. Finally, she said, 10 months after they became aware of the fraud, the IRS assigned a caseworker.
But, because that caseworker had an accent, Leamon said, "it was very hard to communicate with her."
She said she asked for another caseworker and then heard nothing for another five months. When she contacted the IRS, she was told, they thought the matter was resolved, she said.
She got her check not long afterwards, she said.
For a case to last so long is not unusual, Dobzinski said. "These are extremely complex cases to resolve, frequently touching on multiple issues and multiple tax years."
He said that such cases typically take 180 days to resolve, although the IRS wants to reduce that time.
Janice Brownell of Avon Park, who filed a complaint last year with the Highlands County Sheriff's Office, said her case is still being resolved.
What puzzles her, she said, is that she isn't due for a refund and almost never gets one. She wonders why anyone would steal her identity in view of that.
Leamon said her brother in Miami and several friends in Sebring also had their identities stolen for tax fraud purposes.
"My brother still hasn't gotten his refund," she said.