TAMPA — The postman was sorting through the mail on his route when he felt a gun.
"Don't move," the assailant instructed.
Postman Merrill Hadcock, 48, soon learned what the gunman was after: tax refund checks.
The Wednesday morning robbery in Sulphur Springs marked a violent escalation in the income tax fraud schemes that have plagued Tampa over the last year.
It was the second theft this month on a Tampa mail route. On April 17, about 200 pieces of mail were stolen from a truck in Seminole Heights.
Until the recent daylight thefts, scammers were stealing identities and filing fake tax returns online or through the mail to get refunds. The violent turn worries investigators.
"We have had two instances in two weeks now, and it has escalated to a gun actually pointed at someone's head," said Andrea Davis, a Tampa police spokeswoman. "That's scary."
Wednesday's attack happened just after 11 a.m. as Hadcock was parked near 1101 E River Cove St., police said.
As he turned to look at the assailant, the gunman raised the revolver and pressed it against the postman's head.
"Don't look," the robber said.
The gunman hopped onto the truck's outer ledge and told the carrier to drive, police said. He guided Hadcock to Kodiak Springs and 19th Street, then asked where Hadcock kept "the checks," police said.
The postman indicated they might be in a tray, and the gunman grabbed several pieces of mail containing tax returns, threw them into his backpack and hopped off, police said.
Another man was waiting for him in a car, and they drove away on Bird Street, police said.
No one was injured, and no suspects have been named in either of this month's incidents.
The U.S. Postal Inspector has offered a reward of $50,000 for any information about the two men in Wednesday's robbery.
Doug Smith, the postal inspector investigating the robbery, said potential fraud victims will be notified in a letter about what steps they need to take next.
"An obvious answer would be to contact the IRS if you are expecting a tax refund check you haven't received," he said.
Stealing from postal carriers and mailboxes is another side of the widespread tax refund fraud problem many cities are trying to get under control.
A Pembroke Pines mail carrier, Bruce Parton, 60, was fatally shot and killed for his mailbox key during a December 2010 robbery on his Miami-Dade County route.
Last June, a mail carrier in Hollywood, Calif., was robbed at gunpoint. And in 2011, a Camden, N.J., man was sentenced to seven years in federal prison after he and his wife pleaded guilty to following mail carriers to steal tax refund and Social Security checks from mailboxes.
Tax fraud has been at the forefront of crime problems in Tampa for the past year. Police appealed to Congress to try to stop the flow of millions of dollars in fraudulent returns.
Davis, the police spokeswoman, said officers and postal inspectors are working together on safety plans for mail carriers. But the problem goes further.
"The Tampa Police Department cannot investigate its way out of this problem," she said. "It needs to be fixed at the filing level."
In response to pleas from law enforcement, the IRS announced a pilot program in Tampa in which local investigators will get access to information not previously available to them, such as the actual fraudulent tax returns.
That should make it easier for police to prove identity theft.
Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report.