This is tax season – and it’s also the time when clever thieves are taking advantage of modern technology to make South Florida the top spot for fraudulent tax returns, authorities warn.
"We are in the midst of tax season and this is the capital of stolen identity tax refund fraud," U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer said.
One trio went to Bank of America and other banks and withdrew about $1.9 million in hundreds of transactions using debit cards they obtained in a tax fraud scheme, Ferrer told NBC 6.
Frantz Pierre, 34, Terry Pierre, 29, and Christmanie Bissainthe, 33, each now faces a long prison term after they were convicted in connection with the tax scheme, Ferrer said. They set up what on paper looked like a walk-in tax preparation office called the Tax Professors, operating out of a Miramar strip mall. But in reality they obtained 1,000 prepaid debit cards in a clever tax fraud scheme that allowed them to live large, according to Ferrer.
The U.S. attorney said they used the cards to withdraw money from ATMs, and went to Publix supermarkets and bought money orders.
"These defendants had again received 1,000 prepaid debit cards, used 338 of them for $2.2 million, purchased a home with a lot of this illegal gain,” Ferrer said.
The home was a million-dollar property in Parkland that was allegedly the headquarters of the fraud operation until federal agents arrived.
"Some of the defendants were seen throwing their laptops from the second story out the window," Ferrer said.
As part of the scheme, the trio filed fraudulent tax returns – including from Florida inmates, Ferrer said. The defendants stole inmates’ identities to file the fraudulent returns in their names, which resulted in their using the debit cards to withdraw the tax refunds at the ATMs, he said.
One victim caught up in another tax fraud scheme was Florida International University student Nicholas Robie.
"It was scary, honestly, because I didn't know how it was going to affect me in the future,” Robie said.
But the three people nabbed in this Tax Professors case represent just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this kind of trouble in South Florida. In all, the feds have caught nearly 300 people committing $450 million worth of identity tax fraud, authorities say.
“We have seen this as the most pervasive, fasting-growing crime right now in South Florida,” Ferrer said.
So what can you do to avoid becoming a victim?
"File your taxes as early as possible. By doing that, you beat the identity thief to the punch," Ferrer advised.
That is because when the IRS gets one Social Security number, it stops all other returns that come in under the same number.
To get more tips from U.S. Attorney Ferrer, click here.