Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Public safety

Identity thieves redirecting Social Security payments

TAMPA — Retired nurse Jacqueline Midulla lost her $1,032 Social Security payment to a criminal.

No one took her purse. No one stole her mail.

In a new twist on identity theft, someone convinced the Social Security Administration this summer that Midulla had a new bank account number. Her payment went onto a thief's reloadable debit card and vanished before anyone had a clue.

"You think, 'This will never happen to me,' " she said Wednesday. "Not only did they take my Social Security check that month, they also filed a tax return and got my free credit report, apparently."

Fifty times a day, Social Security's Office of the Inspector General gets a report of an unauthorized change or attempted change to a direct deposit routing number, often resulting in a missed payment.

That's what Inspector General Patrick P. O'Carroll Jr. told members of Congress this month, referring to a "recent rash" of fraudulent activity, which he described as a "serious issue facing SSA."

The agency began tracking potential fraud reports in October and has logged 19,000 of them, O'Carroll said in a written statement Sept. 12 to a House subcommittee on Social Security.

That doesn't mean there are 19,000 victims, cautioned Jonathan L. Lasher, assistant inspector general for external relations. Innocent error by the beneficiary, bank or Social Security Administration is sometimes to blame. One small study of 33 cases last fall found five attributable to input mistakes.

But most victims had given out, or lost, their personal information to identity scammers.

How did that translate to altered routing numbers?

Neither Lasher nor a Social Security spokesman would explain. The government doesn't want to provide a road map to help crooks steal from the elderly and the disabled. But O'Carroll's statement described a need for better identity verification procedures in field offices, call centers and at financial institutions.

He focused on institutions that issue prepaid debit cards.

People who receive Social Security benefits sometimes choose to have the money deposited on those reloadable cards, purchased at retailers or online.

O'Carroll called the cards "particularly tempting tools for benefit thieves."

That's a lesson already learned by the Internal Revenue Service. Thieves often use prepaid debit cards to collect fraudulent tax refunds, a skill that cost the Treasury an estimated $468 million in Tampa alone last year.

John Joyce, special agent in charge of the Secret Service's Tampa office, fears that Social Security check diversion could be the next wave of government fraud, he said Wednesday.

He became aware of the practice in recent months. Along with providing presidential protection, the Secret Service has a role in safeguarding America's financial system, which is why his agency participates in tax refund fraud investigations.

"What irks me the most about Social Security benefits is that people are on a fixed income and they depend on that check coming in," he said. "Your tax refund, you know it's coming, but you don't depend on it month by month. It's the elderly now being targeted. It's tragic."

The use of prepaid debit cards to steal Social Security benefits is a scheme with terrible timing. March 1 is the deadline for people who get paper Treasury checks to convert to electronic deposits. (Waivers are offered to retirees who were 90 or older on May 1, 2011.)

Ninety-four percent of Social Security beneficiaries already get paid electronically, the agency's Assistant Deputy Commissioner Theresa Gruber told Congress.

But if people don't have bank accounts, "we tell them about the option of the Treasury's Direct Express card," she said.

Direct Express?

It's a prepaid debit card.

Nurse Midulla, 68, and her husband, Joseph, 73, heard about those cards when they set out to solve the riddle of her missing Social Security deposit in June.

They reported it to the Social Security Administration. The Treasury got involved.

In late June, Mrs. Midulla received a letter at her Tampa home from the Treasury, explaining that the money had been credited to a Bancorp.com debit card. The account number wasn't familiar to her.

The Bancorp Inc.'s website describes the company as one of top five issuers of prepaid cards.

Suddenly, things made sense: Mrs. Midulla had received a confusing letter a month earlier from Social Security, saying that her deposit would be sent to "the financial institution you selected; or the new account you selected at the same financial institution."

Someone had used her identity information.

"Your mind goes crazy as to how this could have happened," she said.

Who had her numbers? Who didn't: After breast cancer, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, reconstruction, two heart attacks, esophageal and stomach ulcers, she had lost count of personal details relinquished. She underwent procedures at an endoscopy center known to have suffered a records breach.

It leaves her indignant that unscrupulous peddlers of identities would draw suspicion to the profession she loved. Her mind settles on the temporary workers who staff medical offices.

She worked as an ER and ICU nurse at St. Joseph's Hospital, Memorial Hospital and Tampa General, she said. At times, she was a case management nurse with access to patient identification information.

"Not once in a million years would it enter my mind that I could take this person's date of birth and Social Security number and get a credit card or file a tax return," she said. "When you're not raised that way, you don't think in that manner."

About 10 days after she and her husband complained to Social Security, the Treasury issued a new payment.

Did it come, perhaps, the old-fashioned way, by check? No chance.

But this time, the money landed in the right account.

Next up: Getting to the bottom of the couples' hijacked tax refund.

Patty Ryan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3382.


St. Pete officer suspended for month after pushing concert guard

ST. PETERSBURG — A police officer was suspended for a month after he pushed a security guard at a summer concert in Tampa, according to St. Petersburg police.It could have been worse: Chief Tony Holloway determined Officer Curtis Wright could have be...
Updated: 9 minutes ago
Hillsborough County firefighter gets the ax after investigators find ties to motorcycle gang

Hillsborough County firefighter gets the ax after investigators find ties to motorcycle gang

TAMPA — Hillsborough County officials fired a Fire Rescue medic Tuesday after an internal investigation concluded he had "unwavering loyalty" to the Outlaws Motorcycle Club — the state’s dominant biker gang. Clinton Neal Walker, 33, of Bradenton, is ...
Updated: 3 hours ago

Man shot, runs for help to Bahama Breeze with suspects following

TAMPA — Attackers shot a Tampa man Monday night as he sat in his car then chased him as he fled to a nearby restaurant to get help, Tampa police said.The victim was taken to a hospital with injuries that were not life threatening.The incident occurre...
Updated: 3 hours ago

Man pistol-whipped resisting home invasion in Wimauma

The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s office is looking for three men who broke into a Wimauma mobile home Tuesday morning, beat one of the residents with a pistol, stole cash and carjacked a vehicle to make their getaway.The incident occurred around 5:4...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Captain credited with smart, fast decisions in Port Richey casino boat fire

Captain credited with smart, fast decisions in Port Richey casino boat fire

PORT RICHEY — Michael Batten, the captain of the casino shuttle boat that caught fire Sunday afternoon, made smart, fast decisions that saved lives, according to a spokeswoman for the boat’s owner.Batten, captain of the Island Lady, decided against h...
Updated: 4 hours ago
Here’s the backstory of the Pasco casino boat operator whose ship caught on fire

Here’s the backstory of the Pasco casino boat operator whose ship caught on fire

By Zachary T. SampsonTimes Staff WriterLong before a shuttle ship from Tropical Breeze Casino caught fire Sunday off the coast of Port Richey, leaving one passenger dead, the company behind the operation was a source of controversy.The casino operato...
Updated: 4 hours ago
Florida love triangle led to a murder-for-hire plot, police say. But the wrong woman was killed.

Florida love triangle led to a murder-for-hire plot, police say. But the wrong woman was killed.

Heartbreak and jealously were the twin engines driving the scheme, police would later say. Ishnar Marie Lopez-Ramos was in love. The object of the 35-year-old Floridian’s affection, however, was tangled up with another woman. To solve her hear...
Updated: 8 hours ago

Florida boy, 6, dies of rabies contracted from a bat

ORLANDO — A 6-year-old Florida boy has died from rabies he contracted after being scratched by an infected bat.The father of Ryker Roque told NBC that the boy died Sunday at an Orlando hospital.Father Henry Roque said he had found a sick bat, put it ...
Updated: 12 hours ago

Pasco man fatally struck on Interstate 70 in Kansas

SALINA, Kan. — The Kansas Highway Patrol says a Florida man died after he was hit by a car as he walked along Interstate 70 near Salina.The patrol says 35-year-old Cody Nordlund of New Port Richey died Sunday night.He was walking in an eastbound lane...
Updated: 12 hours ago
Drone sightings sparking increasing concern locally

Drone sightings sparking increasing concern locally

TAMPA — Shortly before Christmas, Hillsborough County Sheriff’s pilot Jason Doyle was flying a department helicopter over east Hillsborough when he saw the lights of a drone. It was about 800 feet below him and a half-mile away, and quite bright, sai...
Published: 01/16/18