Caralle, who works as a general foreman in Baltimore and lives in Pennsylvania, uses tax withholdings as a way to save. He even had extra money withheld from his paycheck to generate a bigger refund this year. He anticipated receiving $7,765 and went ahead with plans to add a deck to his house.

"It can be until next tax season before I get my money," says Caralle, adding he might have to dip into savings.

Caralle took his mortgage papers, car title, Social Security card, driver's license and employee ID badge to an IRS office to prove his identity. He's mad at the agency. "If I can prove who I am without a doubt, release my money," he says.

The IRS says it is often the first to discover the fraud and will contact taxpayers. If you haven't heard from the IRS and suspect you're a victim, call the agency's Identity Protection Specialized Unit at 1-800-908-4490.

You will have to fill out a Form 14039 — an identity theft affidavit — and submit proof of identity to the IRS.

Cases in which a delayed refund means severe financial consequences — foreclosure, eviction, car repossession or utilities being shut off — are handled by the local offices for the National Taxpayer Advocate, says James P. Leith, the taxpayer advocate for Maryland.

Leith's office has handled 355 such cases since October.

They take top priority within the IRS, Leith says, and his office can get a refund within a few weeks. It generally takes nearly five months, though, to clear up the taxpayer's record.

Maryland ID theft victims in these dire situations can seek help from the taxpayer advocate at 410-962-2082.

Victims should also notify the three major credit bureaus — Experian, Equifax and TransUnion — and review their credit reports for suspicious activity.

Also, put a fraud alert on the reports, which warns creditors that they should dig deeper into anyone seeking a new account using your information. Alerts last only 90 days and must be renewed. You can get a seven-year fraud alert if you submit a police report of the identity theft, says Nikki Junker, a victim adviser with the Identity Theft Resource Center.

Freezing your credit reports is the best protection against new account fraud. With a freeze, new creditors can't see your file, so they won't open accounts. You will have to lift the freeze, which can take a few days, when you want a creditor or others to view your report.

Junker says victims might want to check their work history on file with the Social Security Administration to make sure a thief isn't using their number to secure employment. She also advises filing a police report, which gives victims a document that acknowledges the theft.

The IRS suggests filing a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, which maintains a national database on ID theft that is available to law enforcement. The FTC provides counseling to victims on how to protect themselves at 1-877-IDTheft.

"Once your Social is out there, it is a lifelong problem," Junker says.

Leith, the Maryland taxpayer advocate, offers some comfort. As far as returns go, he says, ID victims should be affected only one tax season.

"We have mechanisms in place to prevent future theft," he says.

eileen.ambrose@baltsun.com

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