Pick a type of fraud, and chances are Linda Osuna has a team digging into how criminals are compounding their crimes by cheating Uncle Sam out of taxes.
Investment fraud. Mortgage fraud. Identity fraud. International banking fraud. From Ponzi schemers to pill mills, there's often an angle that involves dodging taxes.
That's where Osuna comes in. Her official title is special agent in charge of the Tampa field office, Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation. That means from her headquarters on St. Petersburg's Koger Boulevard, she oversees 10 offices across Central and North Florida, each location with about 10 agents assigned to ferret out tax scofflaws.
"The only way we can be effective is to really work cases in every industry," she said. "It's not one industry that hurts our system; it's all of them when there's fraud."
Has the recession affected your workload or your priorities?
Nationwide, if you look at it volume, our cases have stayed pretty stable. I always hope a change in the economy is going to stop crime, but it really doesn't.
Our workload doesn't increase based on the economy. What happens is people become more creative. Our cases become more focused. … They create different schemes that we have to basically dismantle.
What are some of the more creative schemes you've seen?
Some mortgage fraud cases have been significant. What's different now is we have a lot of identity theft. We had some cases out of Maitland where we partnered with our local law enforcement to dismantle these huge schemes. You had people trying to steal people's identities not only through bank fraud schemes but also using our system to try to file false tax returns and steal those refunds.
What's the most common type of fraud you're seeing now?
My program here in Florida is pretty balanced. I don't have any one type of case that's seen a sharp increase. It's more cyclical. Mortgage fraud has been big for us. Pure tax-evasion schemes. The double set of books (where) people are trying to use schemes to hide their income from the government.
Employment tax is very big in this area. We have a lot of employee leasing companies that are pure and legitimate. Then you have these other leasing companies that crop up and try to use a pyramid scheme to avoid paying employment taxes.
Given the volume of tax filings, what percentage of the bad guys do you think you're catching? The tip of the iceberg?
What we try to target are the significant ones: the ones taking substantial money out of our economy; the fraudulent ones who are hurting people.
The best analogy I can give you is putting weed and feed on your grass. You go out there with civic outreach to teach people what to look for. You hope to keep crime down. But there's always going to be those weeds that crop up.
We're three years past the initial housing bust. Are you seeing mortgage fraud cases diminishing, or is the type of fraud changing? A lot of the old cases involved ridiculously high appraisals.
What we're still seeing is the victimization of people where they're saying, "We want you to invest with us, and we're going to buy a property. If you put your name on this, we can guarantee you a return. We're going to buy the property and sell it for you."
Usually the trick is they ask for very little up front. You put nothing up but sign a couple pieces of paper. They continue the scheme for one or two years because they want a little bit of success to get more people. … It unravels at some point when they can't give you any return back. They quit answering phone calls and the legitimate people go to law enforcement and say, "I think I've been duped."
Then they foreclose and these people have bad credit.
What else are you targeting?
One of the big focuses last year was international offshore banking. We had a very successful prosecution on the UBS case. We continue to work with partners on the voluntary disclosure program — people who had investments overseas and failed to report them.
It's just beginning a new phase. We've expanded internationally in our agency from both the civil and criminal standpoint. That's responding to the need. The money now is global. Part of the criminal schemes out there is to hide the money overseas, and our people are piercing that veil.
(Tracking) funds around the United States and outside through the Internet, I think, will continue to be a challenge for us.
Have relationships between various law enforcement agencies and other government agencies improved since 9/11?
I think there was an era before 9/11 where people wanted to stand out and be the agency of recognition, and I think it put a lot of things in perspective for us to come together. We're better as a whole than we are separately. That was a big lesson learned.
Are tipsters reluctant to bring fraud cases to you because of a fear of the IRS in general or that they'll be audited?
They are welcome to walk into any one of our offices. Sometimes it's difficult to come in person; sometimes it's very difficult even to get on the phone. They don't want to say who they are. If people want to write down the facts of a fraud and if they have copies of documents that will support their allegations and mail it to us anonymously, it is just as effective.