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THE FINE PRINT

Were you sent a tax form for a job you never had? Identity theft may be to blame

Susan Zacharias never drove for Uber, but the company said she did and sent a tax document saying she had earned $13,800 in 2020.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

The two “1099″ tax documents that arrived at Susan Zacharias’s home last month accurately stated her name, address, and the last four digits of her Social Security number.

But the documents also reported that Zacharias had earned $13,807 as an Uber driver last year. And that was patently false.

Zacharias, 74, of Weston, retired as a registered nurse 20 years ago. She doesn’t drive for Uber and never has.

As she read the documents, which were generated and sent to her by Uber, two thoughts sprang to mind: “Identity theft” and “Oh, what a pain this is going to be to straighten out.”

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Zacharias said her personal data were stolen by hackers who penetrated the US Office of Personnel Management in 2013, when her husband worked for the government. It was one of the biggest security breaches in history, involving more than 20 million records.

Zacharias’s theory is that someone who actually did drive for Uber last year (and who did earn $13,807 as an independent contractor) gave the ride-hailing giant her data when they applied to be a driver.

Zacharias thinks the would-be driver posed as her because they knew their own information would disqualify them due to a serious criminal conviction or poor driving record brought to light in a mandatory background check by Uber.

“It really worried me that someone, possibly a felon, was merrily driving around as me, creating a potentially dangerous situation,” Zacharias said.

Zacharias urgently attempted to contact Uber, but her e-mails and calls went unanswered for weeks. Besides worrying about criminals tooling around as Uber drivers, Zacharias wanted Uber to correct the tax documents to avoid the hassle of the Internal Revenue Service thinking she owed taxes on income she hadn’t earned.

Frustrated by Uber’s lack of response, Zacharias contacted me. I reached Uber and explained the situation. A couple days later, Uber said it had deactivated the Uber account of the person posing as Zacharias, and said it was working on corrected filings to the IRS.

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How many Uber drivers are out there using fake identities? Uber won’t say how many complaints like Zacharias’s it has received. But an accountant I talked with said these kinds of cases are cropping up with greater frequency among his clients and sent me a link to a Web page Uber set up for people who have received erroneous tax documents from the company. (The accountant said that page wasn’t easy to find on Uber’s website, and indeed it wasn’t; I sent Zacharias the link to it.)

Identity theft is increasing rapidly in the United States, according to a recent report from the Federal Trade Commission, a consumer protection agency that serves as a clearinghouse for identity theft reports.

Last year, almost 1.4 million cases were reported to the FTC, more than double from the previous year and more than three times the number in 2018.

“Identity theft is a terrible crime,” Uber said in a statement to me. “When we learn that an individual is fraudulently using the app, we take immediate action, including working with law enforcement. Uber is constantly updating and strengthening processes to protect against fraudsters’ ever-evolving schemes.”

Here are the steps you should take if your identity has been stolen, or if you suspect it has, as recommended by the FTC:

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File a report with the FTC

The FTC won’t directly investigate your complaint, but it will add it to the millions in its files. Investigators and prosecutors use the data to detect patterns and to prioritize targets.

The report you file on the user-friendly FTC website will give you an officially filed account of what happened that you can later furnish to companies and other government agencies, as needed.

The FTC will also help you organize what it calls a “recovery plan.” (As an aside, if you notice an unauthorized purchase on your credit card, which was not the kind of identity theft Zacharias faced, begin by calling your credit card company and tell them to freeze your accounts, while you change your logins, passwords, and PINs).

In Zacharias’s case, Uber failed to respond to her many attempts to contact it, adding a lot of aggravation.

Alert the IRS

If the identity theft has tax implications, let the IRS know by filling out and filing a simple, one-page identity theft affidavit, known as IRS form 14039. You may also consider obtaining from the IRS an “Identity Protection PIN,” a six-digit number that prevents someone else from filing a tax return using your Social Security number.

Not everyone is eligible for an identity protection PIN. The IRS says you must be a “confirmed victim” of identity theft and have already resolved whatever issues the theft of your identity created for you with the IRS.

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The IRS says on its website that “you must pass a rigorous identity verification process” to obtain an identity protection PIN.

Notify credit agencies

There are three tools available to protect you from having an identity thief open a new line of credit (loan or credit account) in your name: initial fraud alert, extended fraud alert, and credit freeze. All are free, according to the FTC.

You can obtain a one-year initial fraud alert by contacting one of the three major credit bureaus, TransUnion, Equifax, or Experian. That company must then alert the other two. When you have an initial alert on your credit report, lenders must verify your identity before issuing new credit in your name.

An extended fraud alert also requires lenders to verify your identity before issuing new credit in your name, but it remains in effect for seven years unless you have it removed sooner.

You can also opt for a credit freeze, which is more drastic than a credit alert. It prohibits potential new creditors from accessing your credit history unless you first lift the freeze.

Notify the local police

You may be required to provide credit agencies with a police report in order to obtain a credit freeze or credit alert. The FTC recommends that you provide police with a copy of the identity theft report you filed with the FTC. You should also be prepared to provide a government-issued ID with a photo and proof of your address (mortgage statement, rental agreement, or utility bill).

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Got a problem? Send your consumer issue to sean.murphy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.