RIVERVIEW — Over three years, a pair of Tampa Bay area men helped bilk the government out of $17 million in a tax fraud scheme, federal prosecutors said Tuesday.
The two men — Osama "Sam" Mustafa, 47, and Khaldoun "Tony" Khawaja, 48 — worked with Khawaja's brother in Virginia to carry out the fraud, authorities said.
The three stole Social Security checks, filed false tax returns and lied to obtain tax refund anticipation loans, according to a federal indictment unsealed Tuesday.
The men ran the money through checking accounts set up in the names of various businesses — mostly convenience stores and car shops they owned.
Then they transferred millions among themselves and lied to bank personnel about "the reasons they were depositing so many U.S. Treasury checks and withdrawing large amounts of currency," the indictment states.
In total, federal authorities are trying to seize $26 million in money and interest related to the three men's activities.
It's a "major case," said Brian McGinn, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Virginia.
But it's only a fraction of the nationwide estimate that thieves have stolen billions through fraudulent tax returns. In a yearlong tax fraud investigation that wrapped up last fall — the biggest Tampa has seen — local and federal officials intercepted $100 million worth of fake returns and recovered $5 million.
Khawaja was one of the men investigated in that operation. Though he was convicted in January only of being a felon in possession of a firearm, evidence presented at the trial revealed Khawaja had accepted fraudulent tax refund checks for 20 cents on the dollar at his Tampa convenience store, Tony's Groceries. Khawaja was sentenced to about three years in prison in that case.
Meanwhile, Mustafa was living in a Riverview home with his family. But at 8 a.m. Tuesday, federal agents descended on the 4,000-square-foot home adjacent to a golf course.
They arrested Mustafa, then searched the house, carrying out stacks of paper.
County records show Mustafa lives in the two-story home, valued at $210,000, with his wife, Ekhlass Mustafa, 40.
According to neighbors, the couple appears to have three sons, one of them an adult.
Neighbors watched the agents load evidence from 13009 St. Filagree Drive into their trucks. Several neighbors said they didn't know the family members, who kept to themselves.
"The mother would say 'hello' if you made eye contact," said resident Ginger Kaas. "And I heard the man was a car dealer."
In addition to that home, Osama Mustafa owns three others in east Hillsborough, valued at a total of $300,000. He also has a $300,000 Lutz property in the name of one of his businesses, and a $110,000 Wesley Chapel home is listed in the name of his 21-year-old son.
Authorities plan to seize those properties, as well as checking accounts in the names of Mustafa's businesses, listed in court records as: BNA Automotive, the Short Stop, the European Autohaus, SWS Tires and Repairs, and Seven One One. They also plan to seize Mustafa's business assets and his cars. He has two 2011 Mercedes-Benzes and a Porsche. His wife has a BMW, and his son has an Acura.
The other local man, Khawaja, is the brother of the third man — Muawia "Mike" Abdeljalil, who owns several convenience stores in Virginia. Abdeljalil came to the United States in 2001 on a temporary visa and hasn't been able to become a permanent citizen, despite two marriages to U.S. citizens, the indictment states.
Each man faces charges of conspiracy to defraud the United States, one count of conspiracy to commit bank fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering.
Times news researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report.