Florida has the nation's highest rate of identity theft, led by the fraud-wracked Miami area, and thieves are increasingly using the ill-gotten personal information to rip off the government through fraudulent tax refunds, a top federal prosecutor said Wednesday.
The identity theft rate in Florida in 2012 was more than 361 complaints for every 100,000 residents, according to the most recent Federal Trade Commission data. Georgia was next at 194 complaints per 100,000 residents, followed by California and Michigan at about 122 complaints each and New York at 110. The 2012 figures are the most recent.
Among metropolitan areas, the Miami region topped the identity theft charts — just as it has previously for Medicare fraud and mortgage fraud — at more than 645 complaints for every 100,000 residents, according to the FTC. Florida has all five top identity theft regions: Naples, Tampa-St. Petersburg, Fort Myers-Cape Coral and Tallahassee round out the national top five.
U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer, whose district covers South Florida and the Florida Keys, said in an interview that identity theft could spike even higher this year as income tax filing season gets underway. A criminal armed with only a laptop and an Internet connection can easily file hundreds of fraudulent tax returns seeking thousands or even millions of dollars in refunds, he said.
"This is the fastest growing and most pervasive scheme we are seeing," Ferrer said. "It spreads like a virus."
Ferrer said his office has prosecuted 270 defendants since an identity theft-tax fraud strike force was formed in 2012. Those cases involved some $449 million in fraudulent tax refund claims and about 76,700 identity thefts.
Even so, Ferrer said the Internal Revenue Service's inspector general has estimated there will be $21 billion in fraudulent refund claims made nationwide over the next five years.
"I believe we're at the tip of the iceberg of a national trend," he said. "We're not done by any stretch of the imagination."
Sometimes identity thieves are people with ready access to large troves of personal information: health care workers, jail employees, even police officers. Federal law imposes a mandatory prison sentence of at least two years on anyone convicted of identity theft and using that information in a second crime, Ferrer said.
But prison terms can go much higher, depending on the amount of money involved and whether the perpetrator has an extensive criminal history. One Florida woman, Alci Bonannee, was recently sentenced to 26 years in prison for buying 800 identities from a hospital and using them to file for $11 million in fraudulent tax refunds. Another suspect recently got 13 years.
Authorities say there are some key steps people can take to protect themselves:
—File your tax return as early as possible so you can beat potential identity thieves to the punch.
—Don't carry your Social Security card with you, or any other document that includes your Social Security number.
—Keep these sorts of important documents at home in a safe so they can't be stolen by burglars.
—Shred documents before throwing them out to prevent thieves from finding personal information in the trash.
—Don't give our personal information over the phone, through mail or the Internet unless you are certain you know who you're dealing with or you initiated the contact.