Jim Service is a tax deadbeat. He had about $6,000 garnished from his state income tax return this year, and he's been told he owes $4,000 more to pay off debt. The next time the San Francisco retiree gets a state return, it could be seized by the Contra Costa Tax Collector.

Except it's all a case of mistaken identity, and what infuriates Service is everyone knows it. He shares a similar name with a Contra Costa County resident who does owe the money, and the mistake has led to four excruciatingly frustrating months as he fights to set the record straight and get his money.

His agitation grew after reading this newspaper's June article on Elizabeth Reynolds, an Oroville grandmother who had $413 mistakenly garnished from her state income tax return after the same county tax interceptor group mistook her for a dead woman of the same name.

"This law is a very, very big hammer being put into the hands of some very stupid people," Service said of the program that allows a handful of Contra Costa tax collector employees to track down delinquents and seize their state tax returns.

Tax Collector Russell Watts said Service was one of the handful of mistaken identities, along with Reynolds, as the county embarked on its first year operating a Tax Compliance Division.

The five-person team uses LexisNexis and other information databases to track down the information. Watts called the Service error a "third-party SSN error."


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"It is unfortunate the mistaken identity occurred, and I reassure you the Tax Compliance Division will do everything within its powers to minimize it from occurring in the future," Watts said in an email. "The staff has learned a great deal from its first year participating in the FTB program and has already made significant improvements to its operations. I cannot guarantee the mistake will never occur again, but I am confident it will be handled better."

Watts said an apology letter was sent to Service on June 22 along with a $6,000 check.

But Service is still worried about the $4,000 mistaken "debt" on his record, the remainder of the $10,000 garnishment request to the Franchise Tax Board from Contra Costa. When he went to the tax board in April, he was told it was "irreversible."

After an email inquiry from this newspaper, Watts said Tuesday his office was able to reverse the $4,000 outstanding debt and alerted the tax board to delete it. For privacy reasons, the state tax agency said it could not confirm or deny whether Service's "debt" was removed, however they said such a removal was possible if requested from the county tax collector.

Service, who has spent four months wrangling with tax officials, said Wednesday that he didn't have the patience to call the office and endure its long waits.

"They're changing their policy because of what you're doing, not in response to me," Service said.

Service's ordeal began April 6 when he received a "Notice of Intercepted Funds" for $365 from the Franchise Tax Board and referring questions to the Contra Costa tax office. Service reached an employee who called him back to say he had found the correct James Service and that he would be reimbursed once the county received the intercepted funds from the state.

Later in April, he received his second letter, this time alerting him another $5,740 was seized. Again he was told he would have to wait for a reimbursement check.

While he's now whole, Service said he hopes his first encounter with Contra Costa County is his last.

"I feel like I'm in a big government shooting gallery," Service said. "I'm one of those little ducks."

Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.