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Illinois State Police Gets New Commander

Friday, 11 April 2014 09:05 Published in Local News
COLLINSVILLE, Ill. (AP) - There's a new commander for two southwestern Illinois State Police districts that encompass 10 counties.  State police say Lt. Joseph Kollins will oversee District 11 based in Collinsville and District 18, which is headquartered in Litchfield.
 
Kollins has been with the state police since 1995, having overseen a tactical response team and been a narcotics commander. He has a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from Illinois State University and has been a Bloomington police officer. He also has served with the Illinois Army National Guard.
 
District 11 includes Bond, Clinton, Madison, Monroe and St. Clair counties. District 18 serves Calhoun, Greene, Jersey, Macoupin and Montgomery counties.
   
 

TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) -- Laura Hankins knew something was wrong when she filed her daughter's tax return and it was rejected hours later: An identity thief already had sent in a return using the 19-year-old's personal information.

"This is the first time in her life she has ever filed income taxes, after earning all of $1,800 stocking products on grocery store shelves," Hankins said. "I did her taxes for her online, but immediately she got the rejection."

Thieves have claimed billions of dollars in bogus tax refunds from the IRS by swiping the Social Security numbers and identities of schoolchildren in Florida, prisoners in Pennsylvania, teachers in Washington state and soldiers deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Hackers and employees with access to thousands of names stored in company databases have tapped into reams of personal information, allowing them to submit hundreds of fraudulent returns by computer and receive refunds within days. Five people in Cincinnati were sentenced to prison late last year for using the names of employees at nursing homes and hospitals to file tax returns.

It all adds up to a lot of frustration for legitimate taxpayers who face more paperwork and months of waiting for their tax refunds.

Hankins was told her daughter Claire, a college student from West Milwaukee, Wis., would get her refund in about six months. But Hankins first had to spend about 20 hours filling out forms, gathering information and photocopying documents because she couldn't file electronically after the tax identity theft was discovered in February.

"Some kids get to go to Florida for spring break, but she got to go to the West Milwaukee police station to file a theft report," said Hankins, who added that her daughter is worried about what will happen next now that her personal information is out there.

The IRS paid out nearly $4 billion to people using stolen identities in 2012, according to a government report. Since identity theft fraud exploded over the past three years, the agency has made stopping it a priority, but thieves are becoming more aggressive and still finding ways to get around increased scrutiny.

"It's like that game of Whac-A-Mole. When you're attacking one scheme, they come up with another," said Wifredo Ferrer, the U.S. attorney in South Florida, a hot spot for the schemes.

Fraudulent filers have evaded detection lately by getting refunds loaded onto prepaid debit cards instead of receiving them by check. Others have robbed postal workers to get refunds and even recruited mail carriers to take part, Ferrer said.

A former records clerk in Alabama's prisons department was charged in January with selling inmates' personal information to claim over $1 million in refunds. Three others were sentenced to prison for taking part, including a mail carrier who stole the refunds from the mail.

"They're getting very creative by using people in the inside," Ferrer said. "They're creative and brazen. They're using the IRS like their own ATM."

The IRS said Thursday that it has started more than 200 investigations into identity theft and refund fraud schemes this filing season and that enforcement efforts are taking place nationwide. It said investigators are especially focused on the misuse of specialized identification numbers assigned to firms that electronically file tax returns.

But the ease of the schemes means no one is immune. The best steps to reduce the chance of refund fraud are to protect Social Security numbers and other personal information.

The practice has spread to the most unlikely of places. Even employees and volunteers within the Archdiocese of Seattle became victims last month in a case that's still being investigated.

Because the goal of the IRS is to get refunds out quickly, it often sends them out before verifying wages and other income from employers and financial institutions. Victims don't know they've been targeted until they file their taxes.

Dallas radio host Ed Wallace said he found out just over a year ago that someone filed a return using his name. What surprised him was that it got through even though his name was misspelled, his address had been changed and his wife's name wasn't on the form.

"I can't believe there wasn't a field in the IRS computers to alert them," Wallace said. "They must have so many they can't keep up."

He spent about $2,700 on attorney fees to straighten out the mess.

Among the biggest frustrations is the amount of time it takes victims to resolve the issue with the IRS and get their refunds.

The average wait for identity theft victims to clear their cases had been about 10 months but is now down to three months, according to the IRS.

Agency Commissioner John Koskinen said the IRS has more than doubled the employees dedicated to working on identity theft and improved its screening to catch suspicious returns.

The IRS stopped more than $12 billion in fraudulent refunds from going to identity thieves in 2012, compared with $8 billion the year before, according to an inspector general's report released in November.

---

Associated Press writer Lisa Cornwell in Cincinnati contributed to this report.

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SEBELIUS, A LIGHTNING ROD FOR CRITICS, RESIGNS

Friday, 11 April 2014 07:55 Published in National News

WASHINGTON (AP) — For five years, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has been a lightning rod for critics of President Barack Obama's health care law. But with sign-ups exceeding expectations and a new face soon to be in charge at HHS, the White House is eager to see if the poisonous atmosphere might give way to more pragmatic efforts aimed at fixing problems with the nation's newest social program.

Obama will announce Sebelius' resignation Friday and nominate his budget director, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, as her replacement. The moves come just over a week after sign-ups closed for the first year of insurance coverage under the so-called Obamacare law.

The opening weeks of the enrollment period were marred by website woes, straining ties between Sebelius and officials in the West Wing. Though the administration rebounded strongly and exceeded expectations by enrolling 7.1 million people by the March 31 deadline, the comeback wasn't enough to tamp down Republican criticism of Sebelius or boost the public's perception of the federal health care overhaul.

Enrollment has since risen to 7.5 million as people were given extra time to complete applications.

Even with the robust enrollment, huge implementation challenges remain. The administration has to improve customer service for millions of Americans trying to navigate the new system. And there's a concern that premiums may rise for 2015, since many younger, healthier people appear to have sat out open enrollment season.

On the political front, congressional Republicans remain implacably opposed to the Affordable Care Act, even as several GOP governors have accepted the law's expansion of safety-net coverage under Medicaid. GOP opposition means Republicans can be expected to continue to deny additional funds for implementation.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell., R-Ky., welcomed Sebelius' resignation but appeared to indicate an openness to a dialogue with Burwell even as he declared that "Obamacare has to go."

"I hope this is the start of a candid conversation about Obamacare's shortcomings and the need to protect Medicare," McConnell said.

In nominating Burwell, Obama is signaling that he wants to avoid a contentious election-year fight to fill the HHS post. Burwell was unanimously confirmed by the Senate for her budget position and is well-liked by many Republican lawmakers.

A White House official confirmed Sebelius' resignation and Burwell's nomination but requested anonymity because the official wasn't authorized to do so by name ahead of the official announcement.

Obama remained publicly supportive of Sebelius throughout the rough rollout, deflecting Republican calls for her resignation. But she was not by his side last week when he heralded the sign-up surge during an event in the White House Rose Garden.

The official said the 65-year-old Sebelius approached Obama last month about stepping down, telling him that the sign-up deadline was a good opportunity for a transition and suggesting he would be better served by someone who was less of a political target.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Pat Roberts, a Republican from Sebelius' home state of Kansas, called the resignation "a prudent decision" given what she called the total failure of Obamacare implementation.

Sebelius dropped no hints about her resignation Thursday when she testified at a budget hearing. Instead, she received congratulations from Democratic senators on the sign-up surge.

A popular former governor of Kansas, Sebelius has been one of Obama's longest-serving Cabinet officials and his only HHS secretary. She was instrumental in shepherding the health care law through Congress in 2010 and implementing its initial components, including a popular provision that allows young people to stay on their parents' insurance plans until age 26.

But Sebelius' relationship with the White House frayed during the fall rollout of the insurance exchanges that are at the center of the sweeping overhaul. The president and his top advisers appeared caught off guard by the extent of the website problems, with warnings from those working on the technology never making it to the West Wing.

With technical problems crippling online sign-ups after the Oct. 1 launch, the White House sent management expert and longtime Obama adviser Jeffrey Zients to oversee a rescue operation that turned things around by the end of November. After taking the helm of the project, Zients said management issues were partly to blame but did not point the finger at any individuals.

Sebelius took personal responsibility for the chaotic launch of the website and asked the HHS inspector general to conduct an investigation. That report is not expected for months.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a staunch supporter of the health care law, praised Sebelius as a "forceful, effective and essential" secretary.

"Secretary Sebelius was a leader in the long effort to make history for our country with passage of the Affordable Care Act," the California Democrat said in a statement.

In nominating the 48-year-old Burwell, Obama is tapping a Washington veteran with a low profile and the respect of some Republicans on Capitol Hill. Though she only joined the Obama administration last year, Burwell held several White House and Treasury posts during President Bill Clinton's administration.

Between her stints in the executive branch, Burwell served as president of Wal-Mart's charitable arm and led the global development program at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

___

Associated Press writers Erica Werner in Washington and John Hanna in Topeka, Kan., contributed to this report.

___

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