Identity Theft:

IRS Needs to Better Assess the Risks of Refund Fraud on Business-Related Returns

GAO-20-174: Published: Jan 30, 2020. Publicly Released: Mar 2, 2020.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

James R. McTigue, Jr
(202) 512-9110
mctiguej@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

Thieves can claim a business’s tax refund by fraudulently using the business’s tax ID number and other identifying information.

Between January 2017 and August 2019, IRS’s efforts to prevent this type of fraud helped keep $384 million out of criminals’ hands.

However, we found that IRS could do more to combat this evolving threat. We made 6 recommendations to help IRS stay ahead of criminals who would steal businesses’ tax refunds, including designating an entity to provide oversight of its efforts and following leading practices to assess fraud risks.

A woman holding documents and looking at a computer screen superimposed on a background showing ones and zeros

A woman holding documents and looking at a computer screen superimposed on a background showing ones and zeros

Additional Materials:

Contact:

James R. McTigue, Jr
(202) 512-9110
mctiguej@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

What GAO Found

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has efforts in place to detect business identity theft refund fraud (business IDT), which occurs when thieves create, use, or try to use a business's identifying information to claim a refund. IRS uses computerized checks, or fraud filters, to screen incoming returns. From January 2017 to August 2019, IRS researched about 182,700 returns stopped by business IDT fraud filters. IRS determined that about 77 percent of returns (claiming $38.3 billion) were not business IDT and about 4 percent of returns (claiming $384 million) were confirmed business IDT. As of August 2019, IRS was reviewing the remaining returns.

The Fraud Reduction and Data Analytics Act of 2015 created requirements for agencies to establish financial and administrative controls for managing fraud risks. These requirements are aligned with leading practices outlined in GAO's A Framework for Managing Fraud Risks in Federal Programs ( Fraud Risk Framework) . IRS has taken steps to understand fraud risks associated with business IDT but has not aligned its efforts with selected components within the Fraud Risk Framework . First, IRS leadership has demonstrated a commitment to identifying and combating overall identity theft refund fraud, but has not designated a dedicated entity to design and oversee business IDT fraud risk management efforts agency-wide. This is because the program is relatively new. Without designating an entity to help guide agency-wide business IDT fraud risk efforts, it is not clear which entity would be responsible for assessing business IDT risks and documenting the results.

Second, IRS has not conducted a fraud risk assessment or developed a fraud risk profile for business IDT consistent with the Fraud Risk Framework's leading practices. Doing so would help IRS determine the likelihood and impact of risks, the level of risk IRS is willing to tolerate, and the suitability, costs, and benefits of existing fraud risk controls. IRS officials stated that they have not formally performed a fraud risk assessment or developed a risk profile because they have directed their resources toward identifying and addressing business IDT that is occurring right now and improving fraud detection efforts. Documenting a risk profile would also help IRS determine whether additional fraud controls are needed and whether to make adjustments to existing controls.

Third, IRS has not assessed which business-related tax forms or fraud scenarios pose the greatest risk to IRS and taxpayers. Current business IDT fraud filters cover the most commonly filed tax forms; however, IRS has not developed fraud filters for at least 25 additional business-related forms that may be susceptible to business IDT. Without additional data on business IDT, IRS cannot estimate the full size and scope of this problem.

IRS has procedures for resolving business IDT cases and has described general guidelines for resolving business IDT cases, but it does not resolve all cases within these guidelines. Further, IRS has not established customer service-oriented performance goals for resolving business IDT cases, which is inconsistent with federal guidance. Establishing performance goals may help IRS better serve taxpayers and minimize additional costs to the Treasury.

Why GAO Did This Study

Business IDT is an evolving threat to both taxpayers and IRS and if not addressed can result in large financial losses to the government. The risk of business IDT has increased due to the availability of personally identifiable information and general ease of obtaining business-related information online. This makes it more difficult for IRS to distinguish legitimate taxpayers from fraudsters.

GAO was asked to review IRS's efforts to combat business IDT. This report (1) describes IRS's current efforts to detect business IDT, (2) evaluates IRS's efforts to prevent business IDT against selected fraud risk management leading practices, and (3) assesses IRS's efforts to resolve business IDT cases.

GAO reviewed IRS documents and business IDT fraud detection data, evaluated IRS's efforts to combat business IDT against two components of GAO's Fraud Risk Framework , analyzed case resolution data, and interviewed IRS officials.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making six recommendations, including that IRS designate a dedicated entity to manage its business IDT efforts, develop a fraud risk profile consistent with leading practices, implement additional fraud filters consistent with the profile, and establish customer service-oriented performance goals for resolving business IDT cases. IRS agreed with five recommendations. IRS neither agreed nor disagreed with our recommendation to establish customer service-oriented performance goals, but stated it would take actions consistent with the recommendation.

For more information, contact James R. McTigue, Jr. at (202) 512-9110 or mctiguej@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: In January 2020, IRS agreed to designate a dedicated entity to provide oversight of agency-wide business IDT efforts and stated that it will determine the appropriate oversight structure and scope of authority.

    Recommendation: The Commissioner of Internal Revenue should designate a dedicated entity to provide oversight of agency-wide efforts to detect, prevent, and resolve business IDT, consistent with leading practices. This may involve designating one business unit as a lead entity or leveraging cooperative relationships between business units to establish a business IDT leadership team. This entity should have defined responsibilities and authority for managing fraud risk. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury: Internal Revenue Service

  2. Status: Open

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: In January 2020, IRS agreed but did not provide details on the actions it plans to take to address the recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Commissioner of Internal Revenue should develop a fraud risk profile for business IDT that aligns with leading practices. This should include (1) identifying inherent fraud risks of business IDT, (2) assessing the likelihood and impact of inherent fraud risks, (3) determining fraud risk tolerance, and (4) examining the suitability of existing fraud controls. (Recommendation 2)

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury: Internal Revenue Service

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: In January 2020, IRS agreed but did not provide details on the actions it plans to take to address the recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Commissioner of Internal Revenue should develop, document, and implement a strategy for addressing fraud risks that will be identified in its fraud risk profile. (Recommendation 3)

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury: Internal Revenue Service

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: In January 2020, IRS agreed but did not provide details on the actions it plans to take to address the recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Commissioner of Internal Revenue should ensure that IRS collects additional data on business IDT by identifying and implementing new fraud filters consistent with its fraud risk profile. This should include prioritizing IDT filters for tax forms determined to be most at risk based on an analysis of risk tolerances. (Recommendation 4)

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury: Internal Revenue Service

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: IRS agreed with the recommendation. In January 2020, IRS stated that it will complete an analysis of other authentication methods.

    Recommendation: The Commissioner of Internal Revenue should identify and implement methods to address delays in resolving business IDT cases due to correspondence-based authentication. This could involve using different methods for taxpayer authentication based on the risk level of the return. (Recommendation 5)

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury: Internal Revenue Service

  6. Status: Open

    Comments: IRS neither agreed nor disagreed with our recommendation to establish customer service-oriented performance goals for resolving business identity theft cases. In January 2020, IRS stated that it will review its customer service-oriented performance goals and modify them, as warranted, to address the resolution of business identity theft cases. Doing so would meet the intent of our recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Commissioner of Internal Revenue should establish customer service-oriented performance goals for resolving business IDT cases. (Recommendation 6)

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury: Internal Revenue Service

 

Explore the full database of GAO's Open Recommendations »

May 1, 2020

Apr 30, 2020

  • tax icon, source: Eyewire

    Priority Open Recommendations:

    Internal Revenue Service
    GAO-20-548PR: Published: Apr 23, 2020. Publicly Released: Apr 30, 2020.

Apr 1, 2020

Feb 26, 2020

Feb 25, 2020

Feb 12, 2020

Jan 15, 2020

Dec 19, 2019

Nov 7, 2019

Looking for more? Browse all our products here