COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Thousands of Ohioans are getting asked some curious questions online and over the phone lately, such as: How old is your grandchild? What brand of car do you have? How long is your mortgage?
Many of these people have a question of their own: What is this — some kind of scam?
The answer: The quiz is legit, part of an effort by the state to thwart ... scams. Specifically, the filing of phony tax returns.
Under the new program, some Ohioans who have filed their taxes get letters in the mail from the state Department of Taxation directing them to take a quiz to verify their identity. They are told to go online or dial a number.
They are asked four multiple-choice questions — all aimed at ensuring that the tax return submitted in their name is genuine and not an attempt by an identify thief to collect a refund check.
But the quiz prompted 40,000 calls to Ohio's tax department one recent morning, with many filers worried about being duped by identity thieves. Some have even alerted lawmakers and police.
"A lot of those calls are just saying, 'Is this legitimate or is this some kind of a scam?'" Tax Commissioner Joe Testa said in an interview.
State officials said the new procedures follow a dramatic rise in tax fraud attempts in Ohio.
Testa acknowledged the questions can be a burden on taxpayers.
"Of course that's not a good time. We fully recognize that. What would you have us do?" he told a legislative panel Thursday. "If we don't put greater barriers in the way, we're going to lose hundreds of millions of dollars to thieves, and we're committed to stopping it."
John Sims Jr. of South Euclid he took the quiz over the phone and said he felt some questions were none of the department's business. "What does my car ownership have to do with my taxes besides nothing?" he said.
The retired health care worker said he understands the state's efforts to deter fraud. But he questioned the approach.
"Somebody can't pick up a telephone and call the phone number on my tax return that's filed electronically?" he said. "This guy didn't even identify himself as a state tax department employee. I felt like it was an attempt by a third party to steal information."
The identity-verifying questions are derived from information taken from national databases and other sources.
If taxpayers get three out of the four questions correct, their returns are processed. If not, they will need to take another quiz. If they fail again, they must produce a driver's license, birth certificate or other documentation to prove their identity.
Indiana, Alabama and Wisconsin also have identity-confirmation quizzes for taxpayers.
Testa said the majority of quiz-takers so far have passed, and agency spokesman Gary Gudmundson said the department has not heard of anyone refusing to take the test.
The state said it intercepted thousands of fraudulent returns seeking to steal more than $270 million in refunds last year, compared with $8 million to $10 million in recent years.
Robert Apke, a retired technician in Springdale, took the quiz online this week and initially failed. He said the questions were unclear and the survey was "nothing close to what I've ever taken in my life."
Apke, 76, said he then called the department and waited on hold for an hour and half before taking another quiz and passing.
As a former employee in packaging development at Procter & Gamble, he acknowledged that the rollout of a new product sometimes doesn't go smoothly.
His advice? "Throw out the whole system and start over from scratch because it ain't working," he said.
Ohio Department of Taxation: http://1.usa.gov/1A1sV8y