You have to know the way to get to James Buttram's home in Sylvania.
He's got enough company anyway, with a dog he’s almost always holding and a few more he cares for lying around. He tells us, "They give me something to enjoy."
He's not looking for surprise guests.
But he says this spring, "I went to my mailbox one day, and I got a letter from the IRS."
Odd, because Buttram doesn’t file income tax. He draws disability.
He needed help to parse document the IRS sent him. He admits, "I had my kids and stuff to read the letter."
He says, after looking at the letter, they figured out, "Someone had already used my name and Social Security Number."
James Buttram, out in Sylvania, found himself in the middle of a national crisis.
The IRS director recently told a senate committee the agency stopped 1.4 million fraudulent returns last year alone. Those returns totaled $8.7 billion. The IRS worked with victims to close 700,000 cases last year.
Now James Buttram joined those statistics with a letter from the IRS.
He tells us he got a check from the government two weeks later. It looked like obvious fraud right away. For one, the check has his middle initial wrong. The check totaled $56.92.
Buttram started calling the government to give it back.
"It didn't belong to me, and it wasn't mine to spend," he says, "I'm not a thief, and I’m not a liar. I don't take nothing that don't belong to me."
So Buttram has a complicated landscape of federal policy and fraud forms to navigate, and no computer to do it from, but he had WHNT News 19's help.
He remembers, "I saw the Action Line, when y'all was giving that free Action Line, and I called to ask for help."
He learned to contact credit monitoring agencies about the returns. He's got a police report to show the theft now.
But the security of seclusion was stolen with his social security number.
"I have bills like every other soul that I have to pay,” he says, “And I have to rake and scrape. I have to sacrifice just like everyone else does. I'm not different than anyone out there."
The IRS says they convicted about 2,000 people for fraudulent returns over the past few years. Buttram says he'd love to press charges, but he doesn't believe the IRS will catch the criminals. So he talks to them directly, "You took a piece of something, but I tell you, you'll be like me one of these days.”
“Judgment Day comes. And it's going to come right back to you. What you do."
There are no foolproof ways to prevent tax return fraud, but we do have a number of recommendations from the IRS.
Protect your Social Security Number the best you can.
File your taxes early. If you beat the fraudsters to the punch, it will shut them down.
Respond quickly to IRS notices; that can help in the aftermath to hopefully stop fraud from going further.