Business identity theft, tax consequences and best practices
Facilitated by the speed, ubiquity, and anonymity of the Internet, criminals are able to easily steal valuable information such as Social Security numbers and use it for a variety of nefarious purposes, including filing false tax returns to generate refunds from the IRS. The victims are often unable to detect the crime until it is too late, generally after the IRS receives the legitimate tax return from the actual taxpayer. By that time the first return has often been long accepted and the refund processed. Because of the ease, speed, and difficulty involved in policing cybercrime, identity theft has grown rapidly. One estimate from the National Taxpayer Advocate Service has calculated that individual identity theft case receipts have increased by more than 666 percent from fiscal year (FY) 2008 to FY 2012.
There is, however, another dangerous facet of identity theft that costs the government, taxpayers, and businesses millions of dollars each year. That is business identity theft, which like its consumer counterpart involves the theft or impersonation of a business’s identity. To add insult to injury, business identity theft can have crippling federal tax consequences. The following article summarizes the problem of business taxpayer identity theft, the methods employed by thieves, and the means by which you can protect your business.
Business v. individual identity theft
Businesses generally deal with larger transactions, have larger account balances and credit lines than individual taxpayers, and can set up and accept merchant credit card payments with numerous banks. Business information regarding tax identification numbers, profit margins and revenues, officers, and even officer salaries are often public and easily accessed. At the same time remedies and enforcement tend to focus more on individual identity theft. Thus, business identity theft can be more lucrative and arguably less dangerous to engage in than individual taxpayer identity theft.
Only some of the many business identity theft schemes relate to tax. Nevertheless, such schemes can be devastating for businesses, resulting in massive employment tax liabilities for fictitious wages or huge deficiencies in reported income. Identity thieves can use a business’s employer identification number (EIN) to initiate merchant card payment schemes, file false tax returns, and even generate hundreds of fake Form W-2s in furtherance of more individual taxpayer identity theft.
How they do it
Business identity theft can require less effort than individual identity theft because less information is required to establish a business or open a line of credit than is required of individuals. In general, the thief needs to obtain the business’s EIN, which is easy to acquire. Common sources for an EIN include:
- Filings made to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) such as the Form 10-K, which includes the EIN on its first page;
- Public databases that enable users to search for business entities sometimes also display the employer’s EIN;
- Websites specifically designed to search for EINs, such as EINFinder.com;
- Business websites sometimes openly display the EIN; and
- Forms W-2, W-9, or 1099.
Once a thief has the EIN, he or she may file reports with various state Secretaries of State to change registered business addresses, registered agents’ names, or even appoint new officers. In some cases the thief will apply for a line of credit using this new information. Since the official Secretary of State records display the changed information, potential creditors will not be alerted to the fraud. In one case, however, criminals changed the names of a business’s officers by filing with the Secretary of State’s office and then sold the whole business to a third party. In the end, however, once an identity thief has established a business name, EIN, and address information, he or she has all the basic tools necessary to perpetrate business identity theft.
Businesses should review their banks’ policies and recommendations regarding fraud protection. They should know what security measures are being offered and, if commercially reasonable, take them. In a recent U.S. district court case from Missouri, the court found that a bank was not liable for a fraudulent $440,000 wire transfer because it had offered the business a commercially reasonable security procedure, and the business had rejected it. The decision cited Uniform Commercial Code Article 4A-202(b), as adopted by the Missouri Code. Many other states have also adopted the UCC, meaning victimized businesses might find themselves without recourse against their banks in the event of a large fraudulent wire transfer.
Other easy preventative measures that businesses can take include monitoring their financial accounts on a daily basis. They should follow up immediately on any suspicious activity. Businesses should also enroll in email alerts so that they would immediately be apprised of any change in your account name, address, or other information.
A business should also monitor the information on its business registration frequently, whether or not the business is active or inactive. Often businesses that close do not go through the formal dissolution process, which terminates all of the corporate authority. They instead let the charter be forfeited by the Secretary of State. These forfeited charters may be easily reinstated and hijacked by identity thieves.
After fraud occurs
If it is too late, and a fraudulent transaction has occurred in your business’s name, take immediate action by contacting your bank, creditors, check verification companies, and credit reporting companies. Report the crime to your local law enforcement authorities and your state’s secretary of state business division. Finally, whenever possible, memorialize all correspondence in writing and keep it in your records.
If you’d like more information on how you can take steps to safeguard your personal or business “identity” through safeguarding your tax and other financial accounts, please contact us.
If and only to the extent that this publication contains contributions from tax professionals who are subject to the rules of professional conduct set forth in Circular 230, as promulgated by the United States Department of the Treasury, the publisher, on behalf of those contributors, hereby states that any U.S. federal tax advice that is contained in such contributions was not intended or written to be used by any taxpayer for the purpose of avoiding penalties that may be imposed on the taxpayer by the Internal Revenue Service, and it cannot be used by any taxpayer for such purpose.