CNBC reports the percentage of identity theft cases that center on stolen tax return checks has nearly tripled from 15 percent in 2010 to 43 percent in 2013. It's a relatively easy crime, with thieves only requiring a Social Security number and some basic biographical information to perpetrate it.
Generally, identity thieves just make up bogus income amounts, file the returns electronically and hope they make it through the system. Then, when the taxpayer attempts to file a legitimate claim it is rejected by the IRS because records show the person has already been paid.
Victims eventually receive their return but it can take awhile -- 180 days in many cases, the IRS said.
CNBC reports the most effective safeguard is to file tax returns early to beat potential thieves to the punch.
"It really can be a race to the IRS," said Steve Toporoff, coordinator of the Identity Protection Program at the Federal Trade Commission. "[Thieves] usually don't have access to W-2 forms, so they just make up income numbers and hope their phony return gets through the process."