Friday, April 20, 2018
Public safety

Tax fraud investigations heat up, IRS chief says

TAMPA — The Internal Revenue Service released a map Thursday that seemed straight from the weather report.

Florida needs a life preserver.

The droplets showed where IRS-Criminal Investigations has been busy putting pressure on identity thieves. Like never before, the agency's enforcement arm is going after people who claim tax refunds under false identities to steal public money.

Nationally, new investigations tripled from 2011 to 2012 and are on pace to break records this year amid a "massive nationwide sweep" in 215 cities, the IRS chief said Thursday.

Steve Miller, acting commissioner, spoke with Florida news reporters by telephone conference call. He warned that thieves are going to prison.

"These numbers show the IRS is very serious about pursuing identity thieves and protecting taxpayers," he said. "We've taken these aggressive actions because we realize how serious a problem identity theft is for taxpayers, for the tax system and for Florida."

The IRS has a history of saber-rattling during tax season to dissuade people from cheating. But there's no denying that in recent weeks, its criminal arm has seen a string of investigations lead to federal charges, some in Tampa.

In the past four months, the agency reports, criminals have been sentenced in 90 cases nationally, and hundreds more court cases are in the pipeline.

"When these individuals go to jail," he said, "they're spending an average of four years in custody. We've seen sentences as long as 262 months nationwide. That's more than 20 years."

He credited the assistance of local law enforcement and the efforts of federal prosecutors.

Identity-related tax fraud has turned up in every state except North Dakota and West Virginia, said Richard Weber, IRS-CI's national chief.

The identity theft map released Thursday placed color-coded droplets on cities that drew enforcement actions in January. Those are milestones on the way to conviction, Miller explained, such as indictments, arrests and search warrants.

On the map, the droplets barely touch the Great Plains. Southern California and the San Francisco Bay area show patches of activity.

The Northeast is awash with droplets. But Florida is nearly hidden by them.

Last fiscal year, IRS-CI opened 204 refund fraud investigations in Florida. That was four times the prior year's total. With eight months still left in this fiscal year, the tally is already at 156.

"I think it's clear that Florida was ahead of the curve for whatever reason," Miller said.

He describes "twin epicenters" in Tampa and Miami and took note that tax fraud had become a street crime. That's been the case in Tampa, where police routinely find refund fraud intermingled with the drug trade.

In the latest national sweep — which targeted 389 people — nearly one-fourth of the suspects were in Florida, and so far, 45 of them have been arrested, he said.

In the long run, the IRS realizes that the solution is in prevention, not detention.

"We will not be prosecuting our way out of this," Miller said. "That's not going to be the answer. We're going to have to make it more and more difficult for criminals to profit from this behavior."

He said the agency is getting much better at detecting fraud by using screening filters that in some cases compare a return with the prior year's data on the same account.

The filters will continue to improve, he said, though he wouldn't disclose details.

During fiscal year 2012, which ended Sept. 30, the IRS stopped 5 million suspicious returns, Miller said, and prevented the issuance of fraudulent refunds totaling at least $20 billion.

"Last year we did a great job; this year we will do a better job because we are learning along the way," he said.

He said the IRS is also working to improve the experience of victims. Personal identification numbers issued to thwart a recurrence tripled this year, he said.

Still, he noted that too many victims wait too long for refunds.

It takes more than 180 days, he said, to resolve an identity theft case. That's because there's a backlog of nearly 300,000 cases in which multiple returns have been filed with the same taxpayer's identity information.

"We're working hard on this," he said. "We closed, last calendar year, well over 500,000 of these cases, so it's a matter of volume, in terms of why there are delays."

He said his heart goes out to victims. He sat recently with workers trying to resolve the cases to hear their stories. He saw people caught up in the system.

"It was a difficult thing to see," he said.

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

Comments
Firefighters battle apartment complex fire in Tampa

Firefighters battle apartment complex fire in Tampa

TAMPA — Firefighters were battling a blaze at Captiva Club Apartments on Thursday night, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.According to video taken at the scene, the roof of one of the apartment buildings at 4401 Club Captiva Dr. ...
Updated: 6 hours ago
Two Florida deputies shot, killed at restaurant in Gilchrist County

Two Florida deputies shot, killed at restaurant in Gilchrist County

Two Gilchrist County sheriff’s deputies were shot and killed at a restaurant about 3 p.m. Thursday.The deputies were at Ace China restaurant in downtown Trenton when a man shot them through the restaurant’s window, a Sheriff’s Office statement said.A...
Updated: 6 hours ago
FHP: Distracted driver plunges more than 50 feet off I-275

FHP: Distracted driver plunges more than 50 feet off I-275

ST. PETERSBURG — A distracted driver walked away unscathed after his car plunged 50 feet off Interstate 275, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.Thomas Highhouse, 61, of Pinellas Park, was driving his 2016 Chevrolet Camaro south on Interstate 275...
Updated: 8 hours ago
Police: Knife-wielding burglar breaks into house, says ‘I’m the cops’

Police: Knife-wielding burglar breaks into house, says ‘I’m the cops’

LARGO — Detectives are seeking the public’s help in identifying a man who broke into a home early Thursday morning and confronted the owners with a knife.The incident took place about 3:40 a.m. at a townhouse at 7360 Ulmerton Road, according to Largo...
Updated: 8 hours ago
Deputies: Man broke into house, set it on fire and stole their dog

Deputies: Man broke into house, set it on fire and stole their dog

SEMINOLE — A Seminole man was arrested on allegations that he burglarized a home, set it on fire and stole the homeowner’s dog, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office. Austin Lang, 19, now faces numerous charges of burglary, arson and poss...
Updated: 8 hours ago
Deputies: 15-year-old threatened attack on River Ridge High School

Deputies: 15-year-old threatened attack on River Ridge High School

NEW PORT RICHEY—A 15-year-old student was arrested Wednesday on allegations that he threatened to stage a shooting attack on River Ridge High School, according to the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office.The student attended Schwettman Education Center, dep...
Updated: 9 hours ago
Deputies: 19-month-old child hospitalized after being found in pond

Deputies: 19-month-old child hospitalized after being found in pond

NEW PORT RICHEY — A 19-month-old child was taken to the hospital Thursday after being found in a pond, according to the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office.Deputies were called at 12:31 p.m. to the 4700 block of Crestknoll Drive.An adult was watching the c...
Updated: 9 hours ago
Teen, 16, walks into path of motorcycle while crossing Ulmerton Road

Teen, 16, walks into path of motorcycle while crossing Ulmerton Road

PINELLAS PARK — A 16-year-old was injured Thursday morning after being struck by a motorcycle on Ulmerton Road, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.The crash took place at about 6 a.m. Austin Montgomery, 23, was riding his 2011 Suzuki motorcycle ...
Updated: 10 hours ago
Retiring Tampa cop’s son pleads guilty to hazing in death of FSU student

Retiring Tampa cop’s son pleads guilty to hazing in death of FSU student

TAMPA — A Leon County judge sentenced the son of former Tampa Assistant Police Chief Marc Hamlin on Monday to 60 days in jail for a role in the November hazing death of a 20-year-old Florida State University student. Christopher Hamlin, 20, was one o...
Updated: 10 hours ago
Teen, 16, killed in Hernando crash; 17-year-old critically injured

Teen, 16, killed in Hernando crash; 17-year-old critically injured

BROOKSVILLE — A 16-year-old boy was killed and a 17-year-old boy critically injured after their car was struck by a pick-up truck at the intersection of U.S. 19 and Country Road on Wednesday afternoon, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.The cras...
Published: 04/18/18
Updated: 04/19/18