TAMPA — With tax fraud reaching astonishing levels across Hillsborough County, the trick now for law enforcement is how to stop it before identities are stolen.
It starts with vigilance.
Hillsborough County deputies say they are now as much on the lookout for a ledger full of names and Social Security numbers as they are for guns and drugs.
"A year and a half ago that ledger might have gone unnoticed," said Hillsborough County sheriff's Cpl. Bruce Crumpler. "That's going to be just as exciting to us as finding some marijuana or some drugs. Now we're aware of more subtle pieces of information that may help us."
They say Thursday's arrest of a Tampa man caught with hundreds of names and personal information shows their efforts to curb a growing crime.
Deputies received information that 29-year-old Joseph Burden was selling names and personal information from his employer, ProVest, a legal support services firm based out of Tampa.
On Thursday night, deputies met him at Woodland Corporate Boulevard and W Waters Avenue, where he sold an undercover deputy three pages containing 33 names for an undisclosed amount of money, the Sheriff's Office said.
He was then arrested.
Inside his book bag, deputies said, they found 18 more pages with names, Social Security numbers and dates of births inside a newspaper. They found a total of 221 names.
"It's a good catch," said Crumpler, who works with the Sheriff's Office's economic crimes section. "They saved [the] people on that list the aggravation and headache of having their identities stolen."
Burden faces charges of fraudulent use of personal information and running a scheme to modify intellectual property. He was being held Friday in lieu of $5,000 bail.
ProVest has placed Burden on leave and is committed to working closely with authorities in the case, according to a statement from the company. The company says it takes data security and privacy seriously and that numerous precautions have been put in place to safeguard consumer data.
Since Jan. 1, Hillsborough County deputies have seen roughly 500 tax fraud cases.
They realize that this arrest doesn't come anywhere near stopping the problem.
"It's small in comparison to what's actually happening," Crumpler said. "Whatever we uncover, there's a lot more going on out there."
Authorities say tax fraud is a low-risk, high-reward criminal enterprise.
It's simple enough to understand. Someone will sell a name and personal information to another person, who then uses that information to file a fraudulent tax return. Crumpler said the cost per name ranges from as low as $10 to as high as $3,000 or $4,000.
The tax returns are then mailed to a vacant home or another address where a deal has been worked out with the homeowner, Crumpler said.
The tax returns often bring in $9,500 to $10,000 each.
"I think they believe that amount will get through without being challenged," he said. "They believe that number will go uncontested."
The identity theft goes unnoticed until someone files their tax return and is rejected.