Tampa's tax fraud epidemic gets national scrutiny
TAMPA - Tampa's tax refund fraud is getting national attention this week as a city police detective is set to testify before a U.S. Senate subcommittee about what the police chief says "conservatively" amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money being stolen in the Tampa Bay area alone. National news organizations have been in town documenting an explosion in fraud that was first reported last year by The Tampa Tribune and News Channel 8. But the attention has not diminished the fraudulent activity. One police officer who took a CNN news crew along as he pulled over suspects with evidence of tax fraud in their cars found out the day after the interview that he had become a victim.Officer Edwin Perez said he found nearly $9,000 in cash during the stop, along with an iPad that had "a lot of history on there" showing tax fraud. The next day, he said, he heard from his accountant that the IRS had blocked his tax return because someone else had already filed for a refund using his wife's name, date of birth and Social Security number. Perez later learned he may have to wait as long as a year before he sees a penny of the $7,000 refund he is due. Perez was one of at least four Tampa police officers whose tax returns have been blocked this tax filing season. He said a fellow officer whose return was blocked last year is still waiting for his refund. Based on what he's seeing in the streets, Perez said, the fraud is "ten times as bad this year" as it was last year. "Out in the street, everybody is doing it," said Chief Jane Castor. "We're hearing stories about high school kids doing this. It's just incredible." Perez said he's found a 16-year-old on his way to school with a list of names, dates of birth and other identifying information for use in tax fraud and a 76-year-old man with a laptop computer case stuffed with debit cards pre-loaded with money suspected to have been obtained through tax fraud. Because of the scope of the fraud, Perez said, he was nervous when he filed his tax return. "I knew right away I had to file as quick as I could," Perez said, and he did. But he wasn't able to act fast enough to beat the crooks. "I've been in law enforcement for 28 years," Castor told reporters, "and this is the most insanely massive violation of the law that I've seen." She said criminals are getting the information they need to commit fraud by paying people who work in businesses where personal information is kept, including medical offices, schools and assisted living facilities. Perez said his best guess is that someone got his wife's information from a medical office. Castor said the fraud is too extensive for local police to manage. "It' no-win situation," she said. "We could put our entire police force on this now, and we're not going to keep up." Perez said, as a street cop, he constantly sees the fraud – known in street parlance as "TurboTax," after the popular online filing program. "In one of every seven stops that we make, we're going to find something that has to do with TurboTax," he said. Castor said the media coverage has gotten the attention of lawmakers and IRS officials in Washington. Three IRS officials flew down to Tampa last week and met with the chief. Castor said the IRS seems to understand the problem and says it's putting additional filters in place to block fraudulent refund checks from being sent. But Castor reiterated that the existing filters don't seem to be working. For example, the IRS says it screens for multiple refund checks being sent to the same address. But in one case, Castor said, police documented more than 200 refunds being sent to a single address. "They have made some changes, but the insurmountable hurdle still is in place," Castor said. "They still cannot share information with law enforcement. That needs to be fixed. … But I don't want anyone to lose sight of the real problem here. It starts at the filing. It has got to be fixed." Today, the U.S. Senate Finance Subcommittee on Fiscal Responsibility, chaired by Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, will hold its second hearing on tax fraud. This one is slated to include testimony from Tampa police Detective Sal Augeri, who has led the department's tax fraud investigations. The committee is considering legislation introduced by Nelson last year that the senator says will help victims get their money more quickly when their refunds are stolen. On Monday afternoon, a federal judge in Tampa sentenced one tax fraud participant to more than 15 years in federal prison. Perhaps underscoring how difficult it can be to bring tax fraud charges, the defendant was not charged with or convicted of tax fraud. Tarrantzton Barr pleaded guilty to conspiring to possess with intent to distribute 500 grams or more of cocaine. Barr admitted that he and his cousin, Patrick Shaw, used nearly $40,000 worth of fraudulently obtained Treasury checks to try to buy the kilo from an informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration in May. Shaw has also pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentence.
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