As one of the fastest growing crimes in the country, identity theft is an ongoing, easily overlooked problem. All too often, victims don’t know they’ve been targeted until it’s too later because they don’t discover it until a problem arises. By then, the thief is long gone.

A recent operation in south Florida led to the arrest of twenty-five ID thieves who worked together to file false tax returns, their chief targets being school children. The thieves, who included a US Postal Service mail carrier and a middle school lunch lady, stole the identities of some four hundred students and an untold number of correctional inmates and hospital patients. They used those identities—along with many other peoples’—to file tax returns that amounted in around $36 million worth of federal refunds. The IRS paid out almost $10 million in these refunds before it came to light, and more than fifty thousand returns had been fraudulently filed by this group in the last two years.

In the case of the adult victims, the real problem with this particular crime is that tax returns had already been filed in their names, meaning they were unable to file their own legitimate returns. To make matters worse, they not only didn’t get to file, but then they had the distinct pleasure of trying to sort it out with a government agency. It was no small project. Of course, in the case of the child victims, the thieves made off with millions of dollars of tax payer money, which hurts all of us.

While it should be the responsibility of the IRS to implement a better system for verifying tax returns—I find it hard to believe that a sixth grader earned $100,000 last year and paid too much in taxes—in all fairness, they process the returns for every tax paying adult and company in the country, so mistakes are bound to slip through. That’s a fact that the thieves are counting on. Until a better system is in place, it falls on the individuals to protect their identities by safeguarding their personally identifiable information.

The first step is to always protect your Social Security number, and those of your family members. It wasn’t too long ago that SSNs were used everywhere as identification numbers, including in schools, hospitals, doctors’ offices, and prisons. That number is your unique and valuable number, and it is not to be used by anyone without authorization. It is strictly for tax reporting purposes and your financial identity, and it should certainly never be used in a school cafeteria to label your child’s lunch money account.

You are allowed to refuse to share that number with organizations that don’t actually have any business with it, but a lot of people don’t realize that. You are not required to give it to your child’s school, and you are not required to write it on patient forms at a hospital or doctor’s office. I have personally had two experiences in which the desk clerk from the doctor’s office told me they could refuse to treat me without that number on the grounds that they would not be able to file with my health insurance. The customer service rep from my insurance company was more than happy to set the clerk straight—loudly, I would like to point out—when I handed my cell phone to the billing clerk.

At the risk of sounding a little militant about protecting your SSN, I’m more than a little cautious about someone who argues with me in an attempt to get her hands on my Social Security number.

The next most important step is to shred any documents you have that link your name, your address, and any records of where you work, where you’ve been to see a doctor, and more. Even magazine address labels should really go through your shredder. Remember, the postal worker in this scam was important in linking the names and addresses of the fraudulent tax returns. Always shred any paper that you’re even uncertain about. If in doubt, destroy it.

If you found this information helpful, you may want to consider taking part in the Identity Theft Resource Center’s Anyone3 fundraising campaign.  For more information or to donate please visit