Identity theft is the type of crime that’s easy to dismiss. Until it happens to you.

Just imagine, you’ve filed your tax return and are eagerly awaiting your refund. It’s money you desperately need to pay some bills or buy whatever you’ve been hankering for.

But then you get a notice from the Internal Revenue Service saying that your return has been rejected. You won’t be getting a refund because it has already been claimed. You’ve become a victim of identity theft. Now identity theft becomes very real. And it’s getting frustratingly real for a growing number of taxpayers.

Typically, an identity thief will steal someone’s personal information, including his or her Social Security number, and file a bogus return claiming a refund. This is often done early in the tax season, before most people have a chance to file their legitimate returns. “In some situations, fraudulent filings may cause us to initiate an adverse enforcement action against the innocent taxpayer until we are able to confirm that someone else has used his or her information,” the IRS said in written testimony submitted to the House of Representatives.

When defrauded taxpayers aren’t getting the help they need from the IRS, they can turn to the Taxpayer Advocate Service. From 2008 to 2012, the number of tax-related identity theft cases the service handled increased  650 percent, according to the latest report to Congress from the national taxpayer advocate, Nina Olson. During fiscal 2012, the service worked 55,000 identity theft cases, or 25 percent of its total case inventory, Olson said.

Here are just a few recent cases reported by the IRS:

● A Chicago man was sentenced on Jan. 8 to 62 months in prison for filing fraudulent returns using the identities of prisoners and deceased persons.

● A former service member filed fraudulent claims for federal refunds by targeting fellow Marines, many of whom served in his unit in Afghanistan. He stole more than 100 names, dates of birth and Social Security numbers.

● A Memphis woman was sentenced to 262 months in prison and ordered to pay almost $700,000 in restitution to the IRS. Some of the stolen identities came from a “warrant book” of the Memphis Police Department. She would give the information to others, who used it to prepare and electronically file fake returns that claimed refunds.

The IRS had nearly 650,000 active cases in its queue at the end of last year, Olson wrote in her report. She was particularly perturbed that it takes the agency six months or more to resolve such cases and provide refunds or other relief to the victims.

Because it takes so long, “many victims are left exposed to identity theft-related problems the following filing season,” Olson said.

The IRS says the growth of identity theft cases has challenged the agency. From 2011 to 2012, it has doubled to 3,000 the number of employees working on them, according to Terry Lemons, a senior spokesman for the IRS.

“We know it’s frustrating to folks, but it’s frustrating to us too,” he said. “Across the IRS, we are doing everything we can to tackle the issue and help the victims as quick as we can. We’ve taken aggressive steps to go after the perpetrators.”

The IRS has created a special identification number to authenticate that a return belongs to a legitimate taxpayer. For filing season 2012, the agency issued an “identity protection personal identification number” to about 250,000 taxpayers. For this year’s filing season, the program is expanding the program to more than 600,000 taxpayers.

The agency has created on its Web site ( a section devoted to identity theft. There is also a dedicated telephone line. You can reach the IRS Identity Protection Specialized Unit at 800-908-4490.

Olson was critical of the bureaucracy of the specialized IRS units set up to handle identity theft. People need a single point of contact, she recommended. The agency should assign a “traffic cop” to monitor the cases.

“The IRS reports that it is making progress in blocking fraudulent claims and assisting victims, but as the problem grows, the IRS is falling further and further behind,” Olson said.

If your return is rejected, contact the IRS immediately.

As challenging as I’m sure this issue is for the IRS, it’s more so for the poor folks victimized. I hope the agency continues to make its fight against identity theft a top priority.

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Or e-mail: Personal responses may not be possible. Please also note comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.