It's time to do tax returns and here's some motivation to get it done quickly: Identity thieves will try to get your refund before you do.
FBI Miami chief Michael Steinbach called ID theft a "huge, growing problem" in South Florida, which in 2012 led the country with 645 such complaints per 100,000 people. That's double the area's 2011 rate of 324 complaints per 100,000 people, the Federal Trade Commission says.
"Stolen ID fraud is giving healthcare fraud a run for the money," said Steinbach. He called Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties "victim-rich environments."
Fighting ID theft has become a top priority for the division's 800 employees who work between Fort Pierce and Key West. Law enforcement on federal and state levels are working together to stem its growth, he said.
"The IRS, Secret Service and a dozen other local agencies are also going after organized crews. These thefts don't come in onesies and twosies."
Thieves steal personal data from doctor's offices, schools, libraries, county jails and hospitals, wherever there are a lot of databases with names, birth dates and Social Security numbers, Steinbach said.
"First there is the computer intrusion, and then the other part of the team files the tax returns," he said.
Miami's FBI agents built cases that led to 73 arrests for ID theft or tax return fraud last year.
Convictions announced this month by the U.S. Attorney in Florida's Southern District include:
•Stolen prisoners' identities were used to file fraudulent tax returns for $2.2 million in claims. A Parkland man was sentenced to 17 years in prison for his role in the scheme.
•A Fort Lauderdale man filed approximately 291 handwritten tax returns that claimed more than $2 million in fraudulent refunds.
• During the first 10 months of 2012, a former city of Miami police officer used Florida's driver's license database to steal personal information for about 700 middle-aged women with common last names and filed false tax returns. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
As a state, Florida led the country in ID theft complaints in 2012, with 69,795 reports; 72 percent of those involving government documents or benefits fraud, the FTC said.
"When the national average of ID theft incidents that are tax return-related is 43 percent, that's huge," FTC Southeast Regional Director Cindy Liebes said.
To avoid being a victim of identity theft or tax refund fraud, the FTC advises:
•File your taxes as early as possible.
•Lock financial documents and records in safe places at home and while at work.
•Don't carry your Social Security card, and protect your Medicare card.
•Shred documents you no longer need, including prescription labels.
•Send outgoing mail from the post office and don't let incoming mail pile sit in your mailbox.
•Don't put your Social Security number on checks.
•Monitor your credit reports for new, unauthorized accounts or debts.
•Resist sharing personal information with businesses, schools or physicians unless absolutely necessary, and ask how it's protected.
•Delete all information from old computers and portable devices before disposal.
•On your devices, use passwords, software to protect against viruses and spies and don't use a public wireless network unless you know it's secure.
•ID thieves will troll social networking sites for personal information to use while accessing your accounts. Never post your full name, Social Security number, address, phone or account numbers.
•If the IRS says more than one return was filed using your Social Security number or you were paid by an unknown employer, take steps to resolve it at http://www.consumer.ftc.gov and http://www.irs.gov/uac/Identity-Protection-Tips.
Ltrischitta@Tribune.com, 954-356-4233 or Twitter @LindaTrischitta