PEKIN — Tax season has arrived, and with it the growing battle between high-tech identity thieves and government agencies out to thwart them. 

The stakes in that fight have risen in Illinois, said spokesmen for state agencies at its front.

Last year the Illinois Department of Revenue saved $20 million in state tax returns for 31,000 people that otherwise would have wound up in criminals’ hands, said IDOR spokesman Terry Horstman.

That’s $14.5 million more than the amount the agency protected in 2015, Horstman said.

The increase attests to the tax community’s efforts to keep up with the growing business of tax fraud through identity theft.

A jarring example of the crime struck the Morton School District this week when an employee responded to an email requesting the names, Social Security numbers and salaries of the district’s 400-plus employees.

Purportedly sent by the district’s superintendent, police suspect the email came from a hacker in Russia. They were alerted when a second letter arrived requesting the employees’ birth dates and home addresses. 

That information was not supplied, but it remains to be seen what damage, including potential tax fraud, may come from the security breach.

“Tax fraud has been ramping up nationwide for the past several years,” Horstman said, even as more people — now about 85 percent in Illinois — are using the safer methods of filing their taxes electronically and requesting direct deposit of their refunds.

The IDOR, working with the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, the Internal Revenue Service, other states and the private online tax filing industry, continues developing methods to counter ever-changing trends in efforts to steal tax filers’ personal information, Horstman said.

Those filers, however, can form the first line of defense in simple fashion.

“Get the jump” on defrauders by filing returns early, before any stolen information can be used to file false returns in their names, he said.

As the Morton case emphasizes, be wary of any emails “that are set up to look official” from a government agency or other source requesting personal information, Horstman said. Don’t reply or open any attached links, and report the suspicious letters to police and state agencies. 

Pekin Deputy Police Chief Don Baxter said his department receives a steady stream of identity theft reports. They often involve credit cards opened in the victims’ names in other states. Identity theft for tax fraud purposes is not a category the Pekin department officially records.

“I’m certain it does happen” in Pekin, Baxter said.

Horstman and Eileen Boyce, spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, said this tax season will not include a delay in state tax returns that was prompted last year by new security measures implemented to deter identity theft and fraud.

Boyce, however, pointed to federal IRS plans to hold refunds at least until Feb. 15 for taxpayers claiming the earned income tax credit (EITC) or the additional child tax credit.

Because those credits often produce lucrative tax refunds, especially for low to moderate income earners, they’ve become a special target for fraud, according to Boyce and the IRS.

The refund delay is designed to give the IRS more time to verify tax returns before it issues refunds.

Fraud involving the credits comes from filers seeking to pad their returns as well as from identity thieves, the IRS reported. About 24 percent of EITC payments in 2015 were erroneous.

Anyone who suspects he or she has been victimized by identity theft can call the state attorney general’s toll-free Identity Theft Hotline at 1-866-999-5630.

Follow Michael Smothers at Twitter.com/msmotherspekin