While tax-related identity theft has been on the decline in recent years in Ohio, state and local officials still recommend residents file their taxes early to safeguard against fraudsters.

By Oct. 31, 2017, the Ohio Department of Taxation had intercepted more than 100,000 fraudulent returns and prevented $27.2 million from falling into the hands of would-be thieves. While final statistics from last year have not been released, the state is on pace to see both numbers decline for the second consecutive year.

The state blocked about 147,000 returns in 2016, preventing the theft of about $57 million. In 2015, the department flagged more than 234,000 falsified returns and stopped about $275 million in fraudulent refunds.

"Clearly, the trend is going down both in attempted thefts and the amount of money they're trying to steal," said Gary Gudmundson, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Taxation.

Delaware police Capt. Adam Moore said the state's numbers track with what investigators in his department are seeing.

He said the Delaware Police Department received 105 reports of identity theft related to taxes between the start of 2014 and the end of 2017. The department took 83, or about 79 percent, of those reports between the start of 2014 and the end of 2015.

Moore said the department saw a "huge spike" in tax-related fraud cases in 2015, with 59 residents reporting they had been victimized.

"We had people coming in saying, 'I haven't even filed my taxes yet and I'm already hearing from the Department of Taxation about my refund,' " he said.

The department received 15 reports of tax-related identity-theft reports in 2016 and seven last year.

Gudmundson said he credits a "concerted and coordinated" effort among financial institutions, government agencies and tax-related businesses for the declining numbers. While lauding information-sharing efforts among the groups, he declined to go into specifics.

"We don't want to give away our strategy and techniques because that makes it easier to beat the system," he said.

The department's public efforts to combat fraudulent tax returns in the past several years have included the debut of the identity-confirmation quiz.

As part of the effort, the state sends letters directing residents to take an online test when its investigators suspect identity theft may be in progress.

If attempted fraud did occur, the resident can flag the return as suspicious.

While tax-related fraud may be on the decline in Ohio, state and local officials said taxpayers still should take precautions to help prevent it.

Powell police Chief Gary Vest said he encourages residents to avoid procrastinating on their taxes.

"File your taxes early," he said. "If you don't, someone will file them for you."

Gudmundson said the simple act of filing taxes well ahead of the deadline can help the state detect fraud.

"If you beat them to the punch, you're first in line and the next one gets scrutinized," he said.

According to the Ohio Department of Taxation, signs of tax-related identity theft can include unexpected notices from tax agencies and larger-than-requested refunds.

Department officials also recommend residents safeguard their Social Security numbers and other personal information. Individual fraudsters often submit multiple returns using Social Security numbers of living and deceased individuals in an attempt to intercept refund payments.

The department recommends residents who suspect their identities have been stolen to contact their local law-enforcement agency to file a police report.

Additional steps recommended by the department can be found at tinyurl.com/ohiotaxfraud.

Vest said identity thieves often offer money or other rewards as part of a ploy to steal personal information from unsuspecting people. He said common sense can be the most important tool to thwart an identity thief.

"(As) we have always been told as children, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is," he said.

Gudmundson said while tax-collection agencies have made positive steps to combat fraud in the past few years, taxpayers need to remain vigilant.

"The bad news is (thieves) are still trying, and they'll never stop trying," he said.

tgallick@thisweeknews.com

@twgallick