Early in 2014, the Maine Medical Association (MMA) began receiving reports from member physicians that they had been victims of identity theft leading to a tax refund fraud scam. They learned about the scam when they filed their state or federal tax return and discovered that a return had already been filed in their name, usually resulting in a significant refund being sent to an address not associated with their own. While the physicians were held harmless from paying the government for any taxpayer loss, they still were saddled with the loss of time and the hassles associated with dealing with the issue. And, of course, they were left wondering when the next shoe might drop, as obviously some individual or organization had access to their Social Security number and other identifying information. We quickly learned from other state medical associations that thousands of physicians and other health care professionals nationwide were receiving this unwelcome news.
At the MMA, we collected as much information as possible and asked that members impacted contact us so that we were aware of how widespread the scam was. In 2014, well over 100 members (and spouses) contacted us, and in 2015, similar numbers. New Hampshire was also hard hit, and we worked closely with our colleagues at the New Hampshire Medical Society to compare notes. At least initially, we had good contact with IRS agents in charge of criminal investigations. All the information we received was forwarded to these agents. While from time to time we have received reports that arrests were expected soon, ultimately we have never received any information on any person or organization being arrested or charged with a crime. Speculation has focused on elements of organized crime outside the country.
We are not experts in identity theft, and we could offer limited assistance to these physicians. We provided the standard advice regarding monitoring their credit card statements and signing up for appropriate monitoring services. Common sense told me to suggest that physicians not yet impacted should file their returns early! Reaction of the members to the scam ranged from anger to passive resignation. Many wanted to lash out at their employers, health insurers or the government believing that their private information had not been protected. I cautioned against placing blame as we were simply never presented any evidence of which of the many breaches may have been led to this particular scam.
We also heard from a handful of dentists and other non-physician health professionals. It is clear that physicians were targeted, presumably because of relatively high incomes and the likelihood that a large tax refund would not attract as much attention. We have not been advised that any of the physicians had any subsequent adverse events attributable to the identity theft, but they are all still left wondering…”what’s next?”