Identity Theft

Three people from Killeen have been sentenced to prison for using stolen identities to collect more than $490,000 in false tax refunds from the IRS.

Albert Powell was handed a punishment of more than four years in prison, while Paris Stephens and Ronnie Cole received sentences of three years and more than a year incarceration, respectively, according to records filed April 15 in the U.S. Western District of Texas.
The three were said to have filed at least $1.3 million in false claims through TurboTax from 2010 to 2012, using identities taken from job applicants at a Wendy’s restaurant in Chicago, where Powell had previously been employed as a manager, according to court documents filed in a U.S. district court in Austin.

IRS criminal investigators said the victims included college students in their 20s and two parents collecting Social Security disability. All tax returns were filed electronically through the IRS service centers in Austin and Kansas City, they said. The defendants, who had been living in Killeen, pleaded guilty this week to charges of identity theft and conspiracy to defraud the government. They had each faced up to 25 years in prison.

So lucrative is the crime of tax return identity theft, that criminals, many of them drug dealers, armed robbers and gang members, who once relied upon firearms and violence to commit crimes, are now tucking them away in favor of laptops, direct deposit, prepaid debit cards and blind mail drops.

Tax return identity theft has become so popular that politicians, government workers – including IRS employees — professional athletes, police officers, firefighters, lawyers and military personnel have been accused of and charged with identity theft and tax fraud schemes nationwide. Several have been sent to federal prison.

So staggering are the numbers of reported identity theft crimes, that according to the General Accountability Office, the Internal Revenue Service detected almost 915,000 cases of identity theft last year. Most victims are unaware they have been victimized until they file their tax returns. Only at that time do they learn that someone else has already claimed a refund in their name.
Astronomical as it sounds, these statistics do not include the almost 480,000 fraudulent refund claims filed using the Social Security numbers of Puerto Rican citizens, who generally do not file federal tax returns unless earning stateside income, or the almost 1.5 million bogus tax returns claiming over $5 billion in refunds, according to the IRS.

The following examples of Identity Theft Investigations are written from public record documents on file in the courts within the judicial district where the cases were prosecuted in Texas.

  1. Texas Man Sentenced for Role in Tax Refund Fraud Scheme
    On Dec. 19, 2014, in San Antonio, Texas, Abasi Paki Brown was sentenced to 33 months in prison, three years of supervised release and ordered to pay $78,258 in restitution. Brown pleaded guilty to mail fraud on Sept. 16, 2014. According to court documents, from about Jan. 1, 2011, to about Aug. 31, 2011, Brown obtained the personal identifiable information (PII) of certain individuals. Brown then used the PII to file fraudulent federal income tax returns through Electronic Return Originators (EROs) using various computers and selected the debit card option. Based on the fraudulent tax returns, funds were deposited into an account associated with the refund and debit cards were mailed, via the US Postal Service, to the addresses provided by Brown. Once Brown received the debit cards, he used them to purchase items or withdraw cash from ATM machines.
  2. Former El Paso Couple Sentenced for Identity Theft and Fraudulent Tax Refund Scheme.
    On April 30, 2015, in El Paso, Texas, Curtis Joshua Cooper (a/k/a “Kelvin Afanador-Rodriguez”) and Brandie Malfavon were sentenced to 29 months and eight months in prison, respectively, two years of supervised release and ordered to pay $22,749 in restitution to the IRS for their roles in an identity theft and fraudulent tax refund. On Jan. 13, 2015, Cooper and Malfavon pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Cooper also pleaded guilty to aggravated identity theft. From January 2010 until March 2011, the defendants conspired to obtain refunds derived from fraudulently prepared income tax returns. Cooper admitted to using names, dates of birth and social security numbers he purchased to electronically submit fraudulent income tax returns to the IRS. The refunds, which were claimed and received by Cooper based on those fraudulent income tax returns, were transferred by wire from the Federal Reserve Branch in New York to bank accounts in El Paso that were opened by Malfavon
  3. Tanzanian National Sentenced for Tax Fraud Scheme
    On March 19, 2015, in Houston, Texas, Amon Rweyemamu Mtaza, a Tanzanian national, was sentenced to 87 months in prison and ordered to pay $404,409 in restitution, as well as forfeiture of a 2006 Maserati and a 2007 Mercedes Benz as proceeds gained from the illegal scheme. Mtaza pleaded guilty Sept. 16, 2014 to conspiracy to commit wire fraud, wire fraud and aggravated identity theft. Mtaza is expected to face deportation proceedings following his release from prison. Mtaza ran a stolen identity refund fraud (SIRF) scheme that targeted more than 600 people and involved the filing of hundreds of fraudulent tax returns. Mtaza used stolen and unlawfully obtained personal identity information, including the names and Social Security numbers, to prepare fraudulent United States income tax returns. Mtaza electronically filed the fraudulent tax returns then directed the tax refunds to be deposited onto reloadable debit cards, or disbursed as U.S. Treasury checks, and used the monies to obtain cash and goods for his own benefit. The tax refund filings account for an intended loss of more than $1.8 million with an actual loss of $404,409 to the IRS. A total of 685 victims were identified as victims in Mtaza’s scheme.
  4. Texas Man Sentenced for Theft of Public Funds and Aggravated Identity Theft
    On March 19, 2015, in Dallas, Texas, Roberto Boris Fernandez was sentenced to 60 months in prison and ordered to pay $466,405 in restitution to the IRS. On Nov 20, 2014, Fernandez pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit theft of public funds aggravated identity theft. During January 2012, Fernandez conspired with others to engage in a scheme to obtain tax refunds by electronically filing fraudulent income tax returns using stolen names and social security information. The returns falsely represented that the taxpayers were entitled to a refund because of a falsely created Earned Income Credit. The returns were directed to deposit the refunds onto debit cards that were mailed to co-conspirators’ addresses. Fernandez and the co-conspirators used the debit cards at automatic teller machines (ATMs) to withdraw cash. During the evening and early morning hours of January 30-31, 2012, a police officer stopped a limousine for a traffic violation. At the time, Fernandez was the sole passenger. While searching the limousine, officers seized Fernandez’s backpack, a cell phone, an air card, several Turbo Tax envelopes and debit cards, $8,295 in cash, as well as ATM receipts. Inside the backpack, officers found handwritten personal identifying information for approximately 200 individuals, together with notations as to refund amounts, personal identification numbers and dates on which refunds were xpected. Eight additional unopened Turbo Tax envelopes containing debit cards issued in third party names were also found in the backpack.
  5. Texan Sentenced for Using Stolen Personal Identity Information and Fabricated Documents to Defraud the IRS.
    On Dec. 15, 2014, in Wichita Falls, Texas, Bobby J. Hicks, Jr. was sentenced to 63 months in prison and ordered to pay approximately $114,000 in restitution to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Hicks Jr. pleaded guilty in August 2014 to one count of wire fraud. According to court documents, Hicks ran his scheme from 2009 through approximately mid-February 2011. During that time Hicks submitted 15 fraudulent returns 11 of which were submitted electronically. In one instance, in January 2010, Hicks submitted a Form 1040EZ income tax return in the name of an individual Hick met in 2009 in Wichita Falls and had hired to do day labor. In connection with that labor, the individual had provided Hicks his social security number, but he did not authorize Hicks to use it or to submit a tax return in his name. As part of his scheme, Hicks also stole the identities of family members, including the identity of his deceased mother.
  6. Texas Man Sentenced in Identity Theft and Tax Refund Fraud Scheme.
    On Nov. 17, 2014, in Los Angeles, California, Fidelis Negbenebor, of Sugar Land, Texas, was sentenced to 36 months in prison and ordered to pay $258,142 in restitution to the IRS. Negbenebor pleaded guilty in August 2014 to using the identity of another person to commit a tax refund fraud scheme. According to court documents, Negbenebor possessed a credit report and a banking application for an unidentified individual which contained the individual’s name, date of birth, and Social Security number. The banking application was used to open an account in the individual’s name to receive a fraudulently obtained tax refund in the amount of $103,241 issued by the IRS. Negbenebor also possessed credit reports and other personal identifying documents for two other individuals for whom fraudulent tax returns were filed. The total loss to the IRS for the identity theft and tax fraud scheme that Negbenebor participated in was $1,131,895.
  7. Texans Sentenced for Aggravated Identity Theft and Mail Fraud.
    On Oct. 22, 2014, in San Antonio, Texas, Sasha Cher-Von Beckett was sentenced to 51 months in prison and three years of supervised release. Beckett previously pleaded guilty to mail fraud, aggravated identity theft and access device fraud. Her co-defendant, Michael Floyd White was sentenced Oct. 1, 2014 to 39 months in prison and three years of supervised release for mail fraud and aggravated identity theft. Beckett and White were ordered to pay restitution of $113,642 joint and severally. According to court documents, from January 2011 to February 2012, White and Beckett knowingly devised a scheme to defraud the Internal Revenue Service by submitting fraudulent income tax returns. Throughout the scheme, White and Beckett would use names, dates of birth and social security numbers of other individuals to electronically file numerous income tax returns, then collect the refunds by using the debit card option and having those debit cards mailed directly to them.

Protect yourself from identity theft with these basic tips:

  1. Consider subscribing to an identity theft protection service. Several companies offer services to help you in the case that you become victim to identity theft.
  2. Keep personal documents in a safe. Consider keeping a personal safe for your home as well as a safety deposit box elsewhere. You can use your safe at home to protect items such as your social security card, birth certificate and passport.
  3. Protect your purse or wallet at all times. The best purses are those that can be zipped or closed shut. Try not to use bags that others can easily see or reach into, and keep bags close to your body with a tight grip at all times. Do not leave wallets or purses in the car, or if you must, do not leave them exposed or in an obvious place.
  4. Photocopy the contents of your wallet. Make copies of credit cards, ID cards, and all other personal documents you keep in your wallet. Also, keep records of phone numbers to contact in case you need to close accounts or order replacement items.
  5. Examine your bank account statements monthly to ensure that your accounts have no unauthorized charges. If they do, contact your banking institution immediately.
  6. Remove yourself from promotional lists such as junk mail and pre-approved credit card lists. This added clutter doesn’t do any good, and you at risk of ID theft if a stranger gets their hands on your pre-approved cards.
  7. Cancel credit cards that you aren’t using. There’s no reason to have open credit for the taking. Besides, the less credit you have open, the less you’ll have to monitor.
  8. Select passwords that are difficult for others to uncover. An impersonal combination of letters and numbers is the best.
  9. Protect your computer with anti-spyware and anti-virus software. Make sure you keep them up to date.
  10. Do not reveal personal information to unverified sources whether over the phone or the Internet. Do not feel pressured to answer personal questions if you do not trust the source. Feel free to request verifying information before giving anything up.
  11. Monitor your credit. Take advantage of your free credit reports and consider purchasing additional copies throughout the year for continuous monitoring. Consider placing fraud alerts and credit freezes on your account for greater protection.
  12. Shred personal documents before throwing them away. Dumpster diving is a common method of stealing personal information for the sake of identity fraud. Purchase a shredder for your home and make sure you destroy paperwork containing personal information before discarding. This includes mail, credit card statements and even receipts.

Please call Randy Walker 210-366-9430.

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