More difficult, he says, is getting the IRS to undertake the time-consuming task of correcting the taxpayer's account. (Nina Olson, the national taxpayer advocate, recently chastised the IRS during a congressional hearing for dragging its feet on this issue.)

If not corrected, that erroneous refund remains as an outstanding liability that accrues interest and penalties, Leith says. The next time the taxpayer is due a refund, he says, the IRS will automatically apply that money to the liability.

Leith says taxpayer advocates sometimes must pull out the strongest tool in their arsenal — the taxpayer assistance order. This basically elevates the case by telling an IRS executive to correct the account, Leith says.

This year, Leith's office has issued eight orders. "That's a lot for the first half of this year," he says.

If you suspect a preparer revised your return behind your back, order a free transcript from the IRS at irs.gov or 800-908-9946. The transcript will list the items on your return, including any refund.

"Just like folks tell you to check your credit report, you can ask for a transcript," Leith says.

He says he got a call from a lawyer last week whose client received a $100 refund from the IRS but discovered from the transcript that his tax consultant claimed a $30,000 refund by inflating foreign tax credits, Leith says.

It would seem that you could avoid problems by watching the preparer electronically file your return to the IRS. But tax experts say those returns typically are not filed immediately.

Usually, returns undergo a second review for accuracy and then the electronic returns are filed in a batch to the IRS, says Robin McKinney, director of the Maryland CASH Campaign, which provides free tax preparation for lower-income filers.

You can reduce your chances of being a victim of this fraud by making sure you find a reputable preparer in the first place.

Many victims of this fraud have low incomes, and these taxpayers are eligible for free tax preparation from the IRS-run taxpayer assistance centers or IRS-trained preparers through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program. Low- to moderate-income households also qualify for free online filing through the IRS' Free-File program.

Marylanders should also check on the Maryland Board of Individual Tax Preparer's website to make sure the person they hire is registered, a new state requirement this year.

Last, never sign a return with blank lines that can be filled in later by a preparer, McKinney warns.

eileen.ambrose@baltsun.com

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