Gary Deavers manages the home front while his military contractor wife braves Afghanistan. He's legally blind, so Victoria told him which living room set to order in late November, when he visited Ashley Furniture HomeStore in Pinellas Park. The two live in St. Petersburg. Deavers, 46, applied for credit, planning to pay later with a tax refund. But when he submitted his tax return, expecting $18,000 back, he heard infuriating news: An imposter had already filed, snarling the real refund in months of red tape. It has happened to thousands of other taxpayers, and they're left to wonder how strangers got their Social Security numbers.
But Deavers isn't among the confused, not since police called.
On Feb. 14, officers stopped a 2001 Cadillac DeVille in east Tampa. Driver James Edward McCarr, 23, had served prison time for trafficking in stolen property.
Police found $7,501, notes about TurboTax transactions and lists of names and Social Security numbers.
Here's what else they found: three photocopies of Nov. 23 credit applications from Ashley Furniture.
One said Gary Deavers.
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Nine digits. They're designed to make Americans unique for tax and retirement purposes. They arrive amid diapers and ultimately die with us.
Along the way, they collect the fingerprints of strangers.
Honest strangers, mostly. People who wouldn't think of stealing and selling secrets. Numbers have sat safely for years in the files of schools, stores, medical offices, insurance companies, employers, car dealers, financial planners and tax preparers.
But, increasingly, unscrupulous workers can, and do, sell identities on the street, starting at about $10 apiece. They are a necessary ingredient for tax refund fraud, an illegal enterprise reported in recent years to have drained billions of dollars from the U.S. Treasury.
"If you think about it, generally, the people who have access to Social Security numbers are your least paid people," said Alexia Papageorge, one of Tampa's postal inspectors. The U.S. Postal Inspection Service investigates crimes linked to the mail. Like the IRS, it can refer them for federal prosecution.
No company is immune to records theft, which victimizes businesses just as it victimizes individuals — costing them time and money and leaving them to shore up reputations.
Ashley Furniture suffered a breach. But so did the Tampa Bay Endoscopy Center. In a recent traffic stop on the Courtney Campbell Parkway, police found documents from LabCorp and CMSLab in a backpack that also contained a computer ledger of Social Security numbers and TurboTax debit cards.
Last year, a part-time data entry clerk in Fresno, Calif., was charged with taking identity information from her workplace to file fraudulent refunds totaling $175,144. Her case goes to trial this month.
Her employer: the Internal Revenue Service.
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Sabrina Nobles, 44, toted around records at the Tampa Bay Endoscopy Center on Armenia Avenue in Tampa. It was her job. She started at $9 an hour in the fall of 2010 and got a raise to $10.25. But the paperwork was supposed to stay in the building.
Instead, some of it turned up Oct. 2 in a black Monte Carlo with big chrome rims at 20th Street and Henry Avenue, four miles from the colonoscopy facility.
The driver, Corey Antjuan Fisher, now 23, had a history of arrests, including felony convictions for fleeing law enforcement and possession with intent to sell marijuana. He was also dating Nobles' daughter, Terrieisha Allen. He had $4,239 rolled up in his shorts pocket, Tampa police reported. And the tale grew more interesting in February, when Polk County deputies searched Fisher's Lakeland residence.
He told them he had no job but made money doing tattoos.
They seized $22,120, TurboTax documents and Visa cards in other people's names, along with guns, ammunition and marijuana.
The deputies arrested Fisher on weapons charges but in a search warrant affidavit, a detective elaborated on suspicions of tax refund fraud.
The IRS was informed, but a spokesman won't say whether the agency is investigating.
Fisher, the now-ex-boyfriend, responded to a Tampa Bay Times interview request sent to the Polk County jail, then declined to comment, then said he didn't know Terrieisha Allen, then denied being Fisher.
"He thought my daughter was naive," Nobles said. "He wanted her to come to court and act like the money they took from him was hers. He thought he was going to get the money back."
Nobles has not been charged.
She said she may have left records in her daughter's messy car by accident, amid the heels and clothes, while eating lunch together in the office parking lot.
"It was nothing that happened intentionally," Nobles said.
But, in the boyfriend's Monte Carlo, officers found multiple stacks of documents from different dates and appointment times, said Tampa police spokeswoman Andrea Davis. The records were, in some cases, stapled between photos of children and blank paper.
Nobles said she sometimes carried records and retrieved photos from a copy machine at the same time.
In December, Nobles was fired.
"Patient confidentiality is of utmost importance to the Tampa Bay Endoscopy Center," the company said in a statement.
It's unclear whether patient information was used to file for tax refunds.
Nobles blames Fisher for the whole fiasco. She said she and her daughter cried over it all.
"She knew I needed that job," Nobles said. "For me to lose my job behind some boy she knew five months. She felt terrible."
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Investigators are still trying to nail down how credit applications migrated, over 12 weeks, from the independently owned Ashley Furniture HomeStore in Pinellas Park to a convict's Cadillac in east Tampa.
Detectives on both sides of the bay have looked at the case.
They're paying attention to a tip that came in through an Ashley Furniture website regarding a now-former employee. The tipster said the employee had unauthorized copies of credit applications. Ashley immediately investigated, found the tip credible and went to law enforcement, the company said in statement released to the Times.
Tampa police identify the employee as Terance J. Eady. 26, of Riverview.
He has not been charged with any crime relating to the Ashley credit applications, nor have police found him in possession of the documents. Eady has a clean Florida arrest record except for two charges related to driving on a suspended license.
"I have not stolen applications," he said Friday. "I don't know what is going on. I'm clueless right now."
But another story emerged after his former partner, Brent Asalone, 46, went to court last month in Hillsborough County seeking an injunction for protection from Eady. Separately, Asalone alleged to police that Eady harassed him by phone, text message and email.
Asalone gave police an email that he said came from Eady.
It began: "You brought this a-- whooping on yourself for reporting me to the irs. I KNOW IT WAS YOU." It also contained this sentence: "i never had a problem spending the irs money I got from the fraud I did!!!"
A reporter read the email to Eady. He denied sending it and said he doesn't talk like that.
"Oh, my God, no," he said.
Eady said he does not know McCarr, the Cadillac driver.
McCarr did not respond to an interview request.
Police leave open the possibility of coincidence: The tip about Eady may have no connection to the applications found in McCarr's vehicle.
It's unclear how many were taken. Of the three found with McCarr, all three customers report hijacked refunds.
Heather George, 24, who works for a Largo physical therapist, planned to use a $1,900 refund to pay credit card bills. Instead, interest is accruing while a freeloader remains free.
She'll be disappointed if the identity thief isn't punished.
"I know it seems stupid," she said. "I don't want somebody sitting behind bars forever. They didn't kill anybody and it's not a huge, major crime. But I work hard for what I earn, and I feel like everyone else should too."
Sheldon Dwayne Shaw, 25, applied for credit while considering a bed purchase.
"I probably won't do credit applications anymore," said Shaw, who now lives in Atlanta. "It's not worth the risk. Now I'm having to wait I don't know long to get my return. It's at the point of feeling hopeless."
Michael Dobzinski, an IRS spokesman, said the agency tries to resolve cases as expeditiously as possible. "We empathize with taxpayers," he said, "but these cases are complex and can take some time to rectify."
Deavers, the man whose wife is in Afghanistan, has seen his plans for home renovation slow to a crawl as he pays for improvements piecemeal. The furniture was just part of a bigger plan.
He worked at a grocery store seafood counter until lifelong optic nerve decline made that impossible. Now he has no job. He's in school, learning to stock vending machines in a program for blind people.
Like the others, he understands that identity theft happens. He's most perturbed at the IRS. It could be a year before he sees the $18,000.
"If it was the IRS's money," he said, "they'd be calling every day."
News researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Staff writer Patty Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3382.