TAMPA — Infamy is fleeting.
Last year, a federal audit invoked Tampa's name 18 times while describing how thieves everywhere may have collected $5.2 billion in fraudulent tax refunds from the IRS. But an updated audit released Thursday doesn't mention Tampa once.
Miami appears to have replaced it as America's IRS-duping capital, at least in the accounting of a federal watchdog agency, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration.
Tampa didn't even make a list of the top five cities that sneak the most suspicious returns past the IRS.
A senior official for the watchdog agency theorizes that a stepped-up law enforcement presence has reduced the number of false claims coming out of Tampa.
"I believe that we are heading in the right direction," concurs Jim Robnett, special agent in charge for IRS-Criminal Investigation, who oversees teams of investigators throughout North, Central and southwest Florida.
He credits the efforts of his Tampa field office and the Tampa Bay Alliance, a group of local, state and federal investigators and prosecutors who work in tandem to rein in stolen identity refund fraud, or SIRF.
Lately they've been doing it by putting people in prison.
"The past 16 months have seen an increased number of successful prosecutions of individuals at every level of the criminal hierarchy of SIRF crimes," Robnett said, "from the identity thieves to the return preparers, all the way to the money movers themselves."
He mentions the 21-year prison sentence imposed in July on Rashia Wilson, the self-described queen of tax fraud. In court, she admitted to the theft of more than $3 million, though prosecutors said she may have taken as much as $20 million.
An associate, Maurice Larry, got 14 years. Russell B. Simmons, a car dealer, got 15 years. Last week, a nursing assistant got three years for selling patient identities.
Robnett assumed his post in 2012, not long after a Tampa police detective, Sal Augeri, addressed a congressional subcommittee and warned that local criminals were stealing hundreds of millions of dollars from taxpayers.
That filing year is the one reflected in the latest audit.
The audit released last year looked at returns filed in 2011 for tax year 2010. The latest report covers returns filed in 2012.
It notes that in 2012, the IRS confirmed 1.8 million identity theft tax returns and stopped the issuance of $12.1 billion, a 50 percent leap over the prior year, when it blocked $8 billion.
The IRS is getting better at detecting identity theft but still paid out about $3.6 billion in potentially fraudulent refunds in 2012, compared with $5.2 billion the prior year, the report states.
The audit doesn't address the 2013 filing season.
But for 2012, it described a criminal enterprise that obeys no geographic boundaries.
For the first time, the Inspector General called attention to suspicious refund requests honored by the IRS from filers in Bulgaria, Lithuania, Ireland, China and Canada.
One chart tracked instances of large numbers of returns coming from single addresses. In last year's audit, an address in Lansing, Mich., sent 2,137 potentially fraudulent returns.
This time the number was lower: 655 returns. But the address wasn't in Lansing.
It was in Kaunas, Lithuania.
Staff writer Patty Ryan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3382.