Saturday, November 18, 2017
Public safety

Tampa detective describes drug dealers' new, easy, lucrative game

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TAMPA — Tampa police Detective Sal Augeri never expected to become an expert on tax fraud, but he moved in that direction with the boys on the street.

He used to see them years ago, teens dealing cocaine and marijuana. Now they're driving Bentleys and BMWs, throwing money at clubs.

On March 20, Augeri testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee. He told the senators about one suspect who police think has committed $9 million in tax fraud but hasn't been indicted. Most of the 49 suspects arrested in Tampa don't face federal charges.

Augeri is frustrated.

"We can't investigate our way out of this," he says afterward. But he's trying.

Augeri, a 27-year veteran with the Tampa Police Department, leads the agency's tax fraud investigations. He has been on CNN, Fox News and local stations. His advice is sought by law enforcement nationwide. He has had so many requests for interviews he's had to cut them off so he could focus on his workload.

Tax fraud, he says, is a booming enterprise.

Augeri, 51, spent years investigating narcotics. At the end of 2010, informers started giving him a different type of tip: Drug dealers were making money a new way. It was easy. All you needed was a computer and some Social Security numbers.

He remembers his first, sarcastic thought: "Our best and brightest in Tampa are now entrepreneurs."

Now it's rubbed in police officers' faces daily, Augeri says. They run across ledgers of personal information and pre-loaded debit cards during searches and traffic stops — and they can't stop it.

Tax fraud charges are federal. Local authorities can only bring lesser charges, such as identity theft.

Sometimes prosecutors drop the charges. Surveillance videos can be fuzzy, and authorities have to prove that the accused used the debit card.

Sometimes suspects get probation in a plea deal.

Others are pegged only with drug charges because when police find TurboTax running on laptops next to a bag of marijuana on the bed, only one of those is illegal.

At first, Augeri, like other law enforcement officers, was frustrated with the Internal Revenue Service. IRS officials weren't sharing information with police that could help their investigations. The federal agency couldn't. So much about taxes is confidential.

Things are better now, Augeri says. A group of federal and local officials have been meeting to develop a pilot program in Tampa. It would allow tax fraud victims to authorize the IRS to share personal information with local police.

But the real issue is on the front end, Augeri says. It's too easy to file online.

"These guys are street hustlers. They've always hustled to make money," Augeri said. "This just happened to be a scam that has been easy to do.''

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