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ID thief steals $1.4M tax refund

By Kay Bell · Bankrate.com
Thursday, August 5, 2010
Posted: 2 pm ET

Do you know who Donald Bren is? Neither did I.

Neither, apparently, did bank employees at a Cerritos, Calif., branch of East West Bank.

But an identity thief knew of Bren and allegedly has walked away with most of the Orange County, Calif., real estate magnate's $1.4 million federal tax refund.

Investigators say that a man pretending to be Bren deposited the hefty refund into bogus accounts he set up in Bren's name in February.  Then, according to a criminal complaint filed with the U.S. Attorney's office in Los Angeles, the crook moved $1.1 million out of the accounts over the next several weeks.

Neither law enforcement nor bank officials know where the money is now, but they're trying to track down who controlled the accounts at other banks into which most of Bren's tax refund money was moved.

Bren has an estimated net worth of $12 billion and is ranked by Forbes magazine as the 16th richest American and the 45th richest person in the world.

That didn't mean anything at the bank, where the alleged ID thief opened the accounts. There is surveillance video of the transactions; the Bren impersonator doesn't look a thing like the real billionaire.

"His name is well known in certain circles, (but) you can't know everyone in the world no matter how famous their names are," Emily Wang, the bank's marketing director, told the Los Angeles Times.

Tax time is scam time: The actual alleged theft took place during tax-filing season. That's prime scam artist season.

And while most of us aren't going to provide crooks with as much ill-gotten return as in Bren's case, we're all targets of criminals who use our fear of the IRS to try to steal our identities.

The scams continue even after our returns are turned over to the IRS.

Remember, the IRS never sends out e-mails about your taxes. If you receive an electronic message purportedly from the IRS, it's fake and the real tax agency wants you to forward it to them at phishing@irs.gov.

Also be aware that your identity may have been stolen if you get an official IRS snail-mailed letter (the agency's method of contacting tapxayers) telling you that more than one tax return was filed for you or that you got wages from an employer you don't know.

In those cases, respond immediately to the name, address or phone number on the IRS notice and let the agency know of your ID theft concerns.

And one other important tip: Know exactly where your refund is in the IRS system. You can check on your money's status electronically via the IRS's online refund locator.

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