TAMPA — What began as a drug sting last week revealed another crime, police say: tax fraud.
In yet another indicator of the pervasiveness of fraudulent federal tax returns in Tampa, police said three men arrested Friday night during a set-up drug buy not only were found with $15,000 in cash, but more than $630,000 in fake tax return checks and Turbo Tax debit cards.
The three men face drug-related charges, but the case is now in the hands of a task force that will consider identity theft charges as well, said Tampa police spokeswoman Andrea Davis. The Internal Revenue Service has also been alerted.
Detectives didn't know they would be dealing with tax fraud, Davis said, but weren't surprised.
"Unfortunately, it's not uncommon for this to happen," she said.
Federal income tax fraud has become a huge problem in Tampa, where police believe scores of people are illegally raking in millions of dollars.
Last month, a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing on the problem featured the case of slain Tampa police Officer David Curtis, whose identity was stolen and used to file a fraudulent return.
Last Friday night, officers said, they set up a drug buy with 22-year-old Jason J. Christopher, 22-year-old Sondonnie Christopher and 21-year-old Damian L. Bowie at 5050 E 10th Ave.
When the three Tampa men arrived, officers boxed in their vehicle. The men ran away and were arrested after a short chase.
Police searched their vehicle and found $14,957 in cash, four fraudulent tax return checks worth about $32,165 and 67 Turbo Tax debit cards with an estimated cash value of $600,000, according to police.
Inside the vehicle was also a cardboard box filled with ledgers and pages of personal information about hundreds of people.
Police said they also found 48.7 grams of powder and rock cocaine, 100 grams of marijuana, digital scales, packaging materials and other drug paraphernalia.
The men each face charges of trafficking in cocaine, felony possession of marijuana, possession of marijuana with intent to deliver and possession of drug paraphernalia. Jason Christopher and Sondonnie Christopher also faces charges of delivery of cocaine.
Davis said investigators have not determined a connection between the three men and suspects in other tax fraud schemes.