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PORTLAND -- A wave of identity theft on tax returns appears to be hitting the Portland area hard, targeting Catholics.

Crooks gained access to personal identification, including Social Security numbers, and have filed fraudulent returns for many people. Victims often learn about it as they try to file their taxes electronically and are rejected by the IRS because someone has already filed.

That s how Leanne Puga found out she was a victim.

We always like to do our taxes early, she said as she sat at her kitchen table. Now she and her husband Steve are part of a growing number of victims in the greater Portland area.

Leanne filed her taxes electronically and received an email from the IRS moments later. You cannot file these taxes because they've already been filed under this Social Security number, she said the email read. And I was like, 'I know I haven t filed!'

The Pugas are part of what appears to be a widespread fraud attack on members of the Catholic Church.

There's one common denominator for victims: Many submitted their information for church background checks. The information was required as part of the church s effort to address its sex abuse scandal.

The Pugas both gave their information to help at their son's catholic school. They suspect that information was hacked. When you're going through something like that you kind of count on them to protect that information for you, Leanne Puga said.

They are not alone.

Jose Pinomesa and his wife are also victims. They also went through the background checks, which included Social Security numbers, in order to help at their kid s catholic school. He wonders what happens next.

They did e-file for a tax return to get money back. That's the first thing that we found out about, he said. But what happens on the second and third and fourth? This is just the beginning. So we don t know where its gonna go.

A spokesman said the Portland Archdiocese is doing the best it can to cooperate with the IRS investigation into the filings, and church officials don't know how the data was stolen or whether anything was hacked. The spokesman also pointed out that victims are connected to a variety of Catholic parishes and schools.

An IRS spokesman refused to share specifics of the case but said the agency is investigating the tax return fraud targeting people in Portland.

In the meantime, the number of victims continues to grow.

It felt horrible, said retired attorney Leslie Keller. She also surrendered her Social Security number as part of a Catholic school background check. She found that protecting herself is an all-day project.

I spent the entire day yesterday making phone calls to the IRS, the department of revenue, the Social Security office, the credit bureaus, she said.

There is a fraud hotline you can call to see if you are a victim. The number is: 800-908-4490, extension 245. It operates from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. PDT.

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