It had become fashionable in certain circles to mock tea party activists for their vocal warnings about the abusive power of government, with jokes, for instance, about tinfoil hats.

But isn't paranoia useful if someone really is out to get you?

That question seems relevant in the wake of reports that the IRS was targeting hundreds of right-leaning groups with tea party or patriot in their names for special scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status.

Officials demanded that the organizations send membership lists, meeting minutes, rosters of donors, their leaders' reading preferences, copies of their pamphlets - even, in some cases, records of posts on social media.

Revelations about the effort were spelled out last week by the IRS inspector general, sparking a political wildfire.

"It turns out our 'paranoia' was nothing more than reality," said Jennifer Stefano, 39, of Bucks County, an early tea party activist. She now heads the Pennsylvania chapter of Americans for Prosperity, an advocacy group that grew from that movement.

"I have no idea whether Barack Obama ordered this - I'm not saying he did - but he created a culture that targeted us as enemies," she said. "His surrogates called us racists and demonized us. It was OK, even righteous, to persecute us."

The tea party movement has vexed Obama since the first year of his presidency, in 2009. It arose in opposition to stimulus spending and growing federal debt, and then mobilized massive grassroots resistance to the president's health-care program, ultimately enacted after legislative trench warfare. In 2010, the super-motivated activists of the tea party handed Obama the worst midterm defeat for the party holding the White House in 70 years.

In the wake of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision loosening controls on campaign spending, the IRS was facing a flood of applications from politically active groups for designation as 501(c)(4) tax-exempt, usually reserved for "social welfare" organizations.

The burden fell heaviest on small groups without connections and battalions of lawyers.

"We have a very large elderly population in our membership. Many don't have computers," said Brenda Roames, 61, president of the 2,000-member Greenwich Tea Party Patriots in South Jersey. "We communicate through regular mail. We do send enough out that we can send bulk mail. But if we had the tax status, it would be relatively cheaper to do this."

Back in 2011, Stefano said, she wanted to incorporate her own tea party group, but said she began hearing stories from other activists around the country that the IRS was harassing them. She decided not to proceed.

"I was a pregnant, stay-at-home mom with little ones," Stefano said. "Now I realize I could have pushed back, but I was worried that the IRS would come after us, tie us of for years and cost us thousands. I couldn't afford a lawyer."

That dynamic is what concerns many across the political spectrum. How many people were intimidated from activism?

On Monday, one of most powerful conservative groups cried foul, as Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS advocacy group announced that its leaders believed that the organization also had been targeted. The allegation was based on a failure by the IRS to process an application for tax-exempt status for nearly three years, and the release of its application information to a Freedom of Information request from a media outlet.

The chilling effect of the IRS actions may never become clear, but the furor, in an ironic twist, may prove to be a boon to the tea party movement. Around the country and in the region, organizers are reporting increased interest: phone calls, e-mails, Facebook posts.

"This is exactly why we fight for limited government," Stefano said.

Contact Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718 or tfitzgerald@phillynews.com, or follow @tomfitzgerald on Twitter. Read his blog, The Big Tent, at www.philly.com/bigtent.