Many Americans won’t get their tax refunds next year until after mid-February no matter how early they file, according to the Internal Revenue Service.
Starting next year, the IRS will hold tax refunds for returns claiming the Earned Income Tax Credit or the Additional Child Tax Credit until Feb. 15 to give the agency more time to detect possible fraud.
The new procedure reflects a change made by Congress to the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes Act.
Typically, the IRS issues refunds within 21 days or less after processing. This year, the agency began accepting electronic returns on Jan. 19.
"We want people to be aware we are taking additional steps to protect taxpayers from identity theft, and that sometimes means the real taxpayers face a slight delay in their refunds,” said IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, in a statement. “As we continue improving our processes and working with the states and the tax industry, we will stop more fraud while also fine-tuning our tools to reduce the number of innocent taxpayers who might see a refund delay."
The new rules could affect the tens of millions of tax filers who use either credit. For the 2014 tax year (the latest figures available from the IRS), 27.5 million tax returns claimed the EITC, worth $66.7 billion, or over $2,400 on average.
In 2014, 22.4 million returns claimed the child tax credit. The Additional Child Tax Credit is the refundable part of the Child Tax Credit. That means filers who owe little or no income tax can still take this credit as long as they have more than $3,000 in earned income.
The changes at the IRS come in the wake of numerous embarrassing problems related to data theft. In February, hackers successfully used 101,000 stolen Social Security numbers to generate E-file personal identification numbers, which are used by tax filers who submit their federal returns electronically. The following month, the agency detected 800 fraudulent returns that used another special PIN that was specifically designed to protect against fraud.
Those missteps pale in comparison to the huge data breach the IRS suffered in 2015 when fraudsters stole personal data from 330,000 taxpayers to file fake tax returns. The thieves wound up stealing $50 million. A report from the inspector general found that the agency’s system for rooting out ID theft may have been vulnerable to hacks.