Earlier this year, Tampa police detectives realized a decrease in the amount of drug dealers on street corners. Instead of feeling relieved, detectives became worried – this was the first red flag that something was up.
Where was everyone? How were they making money? According to a recent investigation, they were allegedly involved in a money-spinning tax fraud business bringing in $130 million. Instead of putting themselves in danger on street corners, the individuals involved could do this job from the comfort of their own homes; all they needed was a laptop.
As reported by the Seminole Heights Patch, a suspect told Tampa Police Detective Sal Augeri, “Why would I take the risk to sell drugs and get busted when I can put $10,000 on a card and do it all day long from home while the cartoons are on?”
The operation was not sophisticated. The suspects allegedly would log onto sites like Ancestry.com, dig up information on victims (living and deceased) and eventually steal their identity. Another workaround was to buy the information from people who had access to social security numbers (prisons, businesses etc.).
After the information was obtained, the suspect could go to electronic tax filling applications like TurboTax, file a fraudulent claim and have the refund sent somewhere that was untraceable to the individual. Taxpayers soon discovered they could not claim their tax refunds because one had already been filed – this was the second red flag.
The third red flag, and the one that led to the entire investigation, was the fact that police officers were pulling over suspects and finding laptops and Green Dot credit cards.
Making any moves in the investigation was difficult because of the restrictions set by the IRS. The police had to find a way around the obstacles under a federal law that prevents law enforcement from gaining access to tax returns.
Tampa Police Department has joined forces with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, the Secret Service, the US Postal Inspection Service, the State Attorney’s Office 13th Judicial Circuit and the US Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida. The investigation, named Operation Rainmaker, has resulted “…in $100 million in intercepted taxes, $5 million in recovered taxes and assets, and $25 million in stolen taxes.”
Although we are making progress in the Tampa area, Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor said, “My gut feeling is that this is happening throughout the United States.” This case is a classic example of why citizens must be vigilant in the protection of their personal identification information, especially for the elderly and their children.