TAMPA — A 17-year-old Tampa man is one of the first in the state to be charged under a new state law enacted to help local law enforcement officers attack stolen identity tax refund fraud.
Christian L. Russell, 5225 Sonora Court, Apt. 9, initially was arrested Oct. 3 for armed burglary of a dwelling, grand theft of a firearm and two other felony charges, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.
Detectives examined a cell phone Russell had and found a photograph of five handwritten financial institution routing numbers and five account numbers, the sheriff’s office said. Detectives determined the accounts were funded by direct deposits with Treasury checks. He is being held in the Hillsborough County Jail on $45,500 bail.
Russell, who faces charges as an adult, also is charged with unlawful possession of the personal identification information.
The new law, which makes it easier to prosecute criminals who possess other people’s personal information, was enacted, in part, in response to a joint investigation by The Tampa Tribune and News Channel 8. The investigation found law enforcement having to let suspects go even after finding them in possession of Social Security numbers or other forms of personal identification for multiple other people.
State prosecutors were reluctant to bring charges without proof that the information had been used to commit fraud.
The new law eliminated the legal requirement of proof of fraudulent intent -- something law enforcement said was needed to allow for immediate arrests of suspects when they are discovered.
But there were concerns that innocent people who had the information for legitimate purposes could be charged.
Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Cpl. Bruce Crumpler said deputies are being careful about using the new law so that only those up to no good are charged.
“We’re erring on the side of caution,” Crumpler said. “We don’t want to make any bad cases. We want to make sure these cases are solid and we’re using the law for what it’s intended to do. We want to make sure we’re doing the right thing by it.”
The legislators who sponsored the new law welcomed news of the arrest.
“This is exactly why this law is needed,” said Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole. ““Without it, it is almost impossible for law enforcement to prove someone’s intent. Now criminals in our state who steal other people’s identities will be prosecuted to the fullest extent.”
“The necessity for the law came about as a result of the article that you wrote and I saw a need and I pursued legislation dealing with the issue,” Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, told The Tampa Tribune. “ I see that is beginning to work because Floridians should be secure in knowing their identification is safe and should not have to go through the anguish and the turmoil that results in someone using their identification.”
Crumpler said Russell could face prosecution under federal law, but that will time take to investigate and gather more evidence. The law change enables investigators to act more quickly.
Crumpler said he expects more arrests in the coming weeks under the new law because he has seen reports of arrests where the evidence could satisfy the new legal requirements. Crumpler said deputies need to be educated on the new law so they know when charges can be brought.
In the meantime, there are indications that tax fraud activity may be decreasing.
Crumpler said it does seem to be down, although it’s hard to tell if victims are not going to the sheriff’s office as much because they are better able to report the crime to the IRS.
“This time last year, we were getting more than we’re getting now,” he said. “So they’re sprinkling in, but not as much as we used to see.”
Postal Inspector Doug Smith said the postal service intercepted 121,000 pieces of suspicious mail this time last year related to tax refund fraud. That number now is 33,000. But he said that could just be an indication that criminals in the Tampa area are having fraudulent refund checks and debit cards sent to addresses in other parts of the country because they’re afraid they will be confiscated here.