- Associated Press - Thursday, March 17, 2016

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - North Dakota’s Tax Department is taking more time to analyze and process income tax returns to guard against fraud by identity thieves trying to claim bogus refunds.

Tax Commissioner Ryan Rauschenberger said it takes about eight days to process an average tax return, or double the time it took a couple of years ago. The extra time is used to scrutinize wage documents and employ other undisclosed safeguards, he said.

“We have always had checks but we have really ramped up security checks,” Rauschenberger said.

Data show the Tax Department caught 915 returns claiming $1.3 million in fraudulent refunds last year. The agency stopped payment on all but $44,000 of those claims, and ultimately $38,400 was not recovered.

North Dakota residents filed a record 515,293 returns last year, with refunds totaling more than $123 million, data show. The average refund totaled $189 last year.

Rauschenberger said the number of phony returns this year is on pace with 2015. The Tax Department already has stopped payment on 82 returns that were filed by identity thieves attempting to claim bogus refunds of about $183,000, he said.

Last year was the first time the agency “purposely” delayed refunds to “give staff more time to analyze returns,” Rauschenberger said. The agency requested seven additional staff members to help process returns last year but was only given funding for one extra worker.

Rauschenberger said workers who normally handle other duties within the agency are helping process tax returns.

Taxpayers can help combat fraud by filing their returns as quickly as possible, and before identity thieves can file a phony return, he said. “We are absolutely going to catch it if they are using (duplicate) information and filing after you,” he said.

Catching the actual scammers can be difficult, though, he said.

“Fraudsters are smart, patient and they know how to hide themselves via the Internet,” Rauschenberger said. “It can be done from anywhere in the world and it’s very common for them to use direct deposit. And once the money is in an account, the account is closed seconds later and they are gone.”

North Dakota is not alone in stepping up anti-fraud protections.

“This is happening nationwide,” Rauschenberger said. “There are 43 states that have income taxes so that’s 43 targets for tax fraudsters.”

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