Between the Lines: A stark reminder that you can never be too careful

You can tell that summer is fast approaching in Vermillion.

Traffic is a bit lighter today than it was yesterday. And tomorrow, there likely will be even fewer cars on the city streets. USD held its commencement Saturday, many students who received their degrees have packed up and left for new adventures, and those who remain will be gone soon, too, after they complete their final tests of this school year.

Vermillion is, in many ways, the new millennium's Mayberry. You know your kids will be safe here. It's a place where neighbors watch out for each other. The general citizenry demonstrates its love of community by never failing to support local schools, parks, sports, theatre and dance.

It's a place where just a single instance of crime is usually big news. The city violent crime rate for Vermillion in 2009 was lower than the national violent crime rate average by 95.57 percent, according to CityRating.com. The city property crime rate in Vermillion was lower than the national property crime rate average by 52.11 percent.

The sense of calm that is quickly descending on the community, however, can be a bit deceptive. The new millennium has brought new challenges – the type that the citizens of the fictional Mayberry could never dream of.

Vermillion discovered this week that its peaceful atmosphere does not make it immune to some serious wrongdoing by some. There is a new type of thief in this new age who can blend right in here, because his/her act is not brazen; it doesn't involve using a gun, or breaking into a business' cash register or safe.

This new crime is identity theft.

The Vermillion Police Department announced this week that local officers are working with U.S. Treasury special agents as they investigate a conspiracy to file false tax returns using stolen identities.

The conspirators – who appear to be USD students – likely may have been able to have thousands of dollars placed on debit cards which were then mailed to them. The money was then drawn out of the debit cards before the IRS was able to determine that a fraud has been perpetrated.

Law enforcement has served search warrants on the suspects. We'll likely learn more as this investigation progresses.

If one does a minimal bit of exploring in the Internal Revenue Service website, it's easy to find a link that asks the question every taxpayer wants to know: "Where's My Refund?"

Further exploration reveals this statement: "The IRS does not initiate contact with taxpayers by email or any social media tools to request personal or financial information."

The Treasury asks taxpayers to report any suspicious e-mails or websites purporting to be connected to the IRS to phishing (at) irs.com. Phishing, as anyone unfortunate enough to be victimized knows, is a plausible-looking but still phony e-mail or website that elicits personal information for fraudulent purposes.

The details of the Vermillion conspiracy are still unknown. We have yet to learn if it involves phishing.

Isaac Wolf of Scripps Howard News Service reports, however, that one of the fastest growing forms of identity theft is crooks using purloined Social Security numbers and personal information to divert tax refunds from the rightful recipients. The Federal Trade Commission's database reveals a tripling of tax- and wage-related ID thefts from 2005 to 2009.

ID theft complaints tend to wax and wane as the authorities crack down on one sort of fraud, and it takes the crooks awhile to settle on another. The FTC data shows an overall drop in credit card-related complaints, but purloined tax refunds are way up, as are lifting identities to open new utility accounts.

One of the clever wrinkles in diverting tax refunds is to gain the necessary taxpayer information by offering free tax-filing services. Those unfortunate people who took advantage of one such offer found their returns doctored to justify large refunds with the cash sent to the con artists. The service claimed to be approved by the IRS; in fact, it was based in Belarus in Eastern Europe.

The news this week is a reminder that even while doing something as routine as filing taxes or filling out a form that asks for a credit card or Social Security number, you may unwittingly be putting your identity and finances at risk.

You can't be too careful. Even in Vermillion.

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