Internal Revenue Service officials visited 150 money services businesses in nine cities they consider a high risk for tax fraud — including Tampa — in the last week to make sure they weren't knowingly taking part in identity theft and refund fraud rings.
The visits were a component of a recent federal government sweep that ensnared 105 people in 23 states in a crackdown on identity theft and tax fraud timed to warn cheats to beware this tax season, the IRS said Tuesday.
The sweep ranged from Florida to Alaska, and included 80 complaints and indictments and 58 arrests. It has already produced a handful of guilty pleas and sentences, officials said.
Besides the IRS, the Justice Department, the Postal Service and local U.S. attorney's offices were involved in investigations that lasted months and, in some cases, years.
Officials unsealed an indictment Jan. 24 that included Henry Edward Clayton, 31, of Tampa. He was indicted with eight others in Tallahassee, accused of conspiring to file fraudulent tax returns from 2008 to 2011 and collecting $2.4 million in the process.
On Jan. 25, the Justice Department also charged Fahim Suleiman, 46, of Lutz with being part of a group of six who conspired to commit mail fraud and defraud the government. Suleiman was also charged with two counts of aggravated identity theft.
IRS officials say the use of stolen identities to fraudulently file for tax refunds, generally involving stolen Social Security numbers, is a growing problem. Last year, the agency says, it found 260,000 income tax returns with confirmed attempts at identity fraud and blocked the payment of $1.4 billion worth of refunds.
"The timing is not coincidental," Steven Miller, the IRS's deputy commissioner for services and enforcement told reporters. "It's the start of tax season, this is a large issue and we want to send a message out there."
The cases, some of which were announced previously by local officials, included:
• Three women from Dayton, Ohio, accused of getting tax refunds by using identities stolen from mentally disabled adults;
• A Montgomery, Ala., woman accused of using her job as a security guard to steal identities of people served by a state agency to file false returns;
• A Colorado Springs man charged with stealing identities of the clients of a company that had gone out of business to fraudulently file for tax refunds.
The sweep of 150 money services businesses was conducted in nine cities the IRS considers a high risk for fraud. Besides Tampa, they are Atlanta; Birmingham, Ala.; Chicago; Los Angeles; Miami; New York; Phoenix; and Washington, D.C. In addition, the agency is auditing more than 250 check-cashing operations around the country.
Last year, local and federal officials announced in Tampa that a yearlong investigation into tax scams called "Operation Rainmaker" was able to intercept $100 million and recover $5 million in cash, jewelry, cars, entertainment systems and fraudulent refunds. Another $25 million was believed to have been illegally obtained but was not recovered.