Dear Liz: My cousin had his house broken into a little over a year ago. A lot of things were taken, but insurance replaced most of what he thought was missing. This year after he filed his return he was contacted by the IRS, which told him that a return using his information had already been filed and the refund check cashed. The IRS is investigating the situation now, but I really worry about what is going to happen to his Social Security in the future if someone else is using his numbers or those of his children. Do you have any information on what steps he should take?
Answer: Theft of tax refunds is a growing problem. In fact, tax identity theft is the No. 1 fraud on the IRS' list of Dirty Dozen Tax Scams of 2012.
The fraud is often perpetrated by organized criminal gangs that con, steal or buy people's personal information to create bogus returns. Some people fall right into the bad guys' hands by responding to emails that purport to be from the IRS. (The IRS doesn't email people to request personal or financial information.)
If the problem isn't resolved within a few months, your cousin should contact the agency's Identity Protection Specialized Unit at (800) 908-4490.
Since the criminals already have his Social Security number and other important financial information, he also should put security freezes on his credit reports at all three bureaus. Links to the bureaus and other information for identity theft victims can be found on the IRS' site at http://www.irs.gov.
Interest-only debt payments can hurt credit
Dear Liz: I hope you can offer me some advice regarding a large credit card debt. My 28-year-old grandson is currently enrolled in college part-time and is employed. Over the last few years, he was not in school and unable to find work. He has, consequently, accumulated a total debt of $7,000 on his three credit cards. What would you advise him to do? He is paying the interest only on his debts as that is all he can afford.
Answer: Today's minimum payments require credit card borrowers to repay a portion of principal along with the interest owed that month. If he truly is paying only interest, then he's paying less than the minimum required and his credit scores have probably taken a big hit.
Let's assume that he's actually paying the minimums on his cards. He needs to increase his payments if he wants to work his way out of debt faster. That will require earning more income (by working more hours or taking a second job), cutting expenses or both.
Seven thousand dollars is not an insurmountable amount of debt, and certainly not something he should file bankruptcy over. But he may want to talk to a legitimate credit counselor about budgeting strategies or, if he's really in a bind, a debt management plan that would allow him to pay the debt off over time at lower interest rates. He can get referrals from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling at http://www.nfcc.org.
What you shouldn't do is offer to pay this debt, even if you can. Struggling to repay this debt could teach him not to carry balances in the future. If you pay the debt, the only thing he learns is that he can count on Grandma to bail him out of his own messes.
Getting ex's Social Security data
Dear Liz: I am 63 and divorced after being married over 10 years. I was told by our local Social Security office that I need my ex's Social Security number in order to find out whether spousal benefits based on his record would be more than benefits based on my own record. I have his full name and date of birth, but I would rather not ask him for his Social Security number. If I do really need that, do you have any suggestions? Would some other type of information suffice?
Answer: The information you received from your local Social Security office is incorrect. You do not need your ex's Social Security number to apply for spousal benefits, said Jonathan Peterson, AARP executive communications director and author of "Social Security for Dummies." The more identifying information you can provide, the better, but the Social Security Administration can track down his records without it.
That said, you might want to dig around in your old files to see whether you can find a joint tax return, which will certainly have his number, or an old health insurance card, which might.
Spousal benefits are available to divorced people as long as they were married at least 10 years, are 62 or older and are currently not married.
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