A Florida man was sentenced to 9½ years in prison Thursday for his role in a sophisticated, multimillion-dollar identity theft/tax refund scam uncovered by good luck and good police work.
In a case still under investigation by the IRS, Ramoth Jean, 33, of Miami, was sentenced after pleading guilty in October to charges of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and wire fraud and aggravated identity theft.
The IRS says identity theft/tax refund fraud is becoming a significant problem across the country, with the number of investigations increasing from fewer than 300 in 2011 to almost 1,500 last year.
Authorities said the scam was detected thanks to a series of fortuitous events when participants failed to pay rent on a storage locker on time and a thorough search was performed on Jean by Henrico County police officer Stuart Von Canon.
In August 2012, the manager of West End Self Storage in the 9100 block of West Broad Street discovered payment was overdue for a unit that may have been rented using a stolen identity.
Jean happened to show up a day after police were notified, and an employee called police. Von Canon arrived at the scene and met Jean, who was carrying a box taken from the unit and who agreed to be searched.
A debit card issued by TurboTax bearing another person’s name was found in Jean’s left shoe. Because police were unable to contact the person who was named on the card, a magistrate would not issue an identity theft warrant against Jean.
But Von Canon and Detective Christopher Maher obtained search warrants for the box Jean was carrying and for the storage unit, and they found hundreds of index cards bearing the names, dates of birth and Social Security numbers of people around the country.
Michael C. Moore, an assistant U.S. attorney, told U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson on Thursday that had it not been for the late payment for the storage unit, the scheme might not have been detected.
“This is a disciplined organization that covered its tracks carefully,” said Moore. “This operation was an intensely disruptive scheme for the IRS and the person’s whose IDs were stolen.”
Hudson, shortly before sentencing Jean, said, “This is a young man who, but for the work of officer Von Canon, would have defrauded the government out of more than $2 million.”
Given a chance to speak before he was sentenced, Jean apologized and said he needed $5,000 to bury his father, who died of cancer in August 2012.
Hudson, while noting he was sorry for his father’s death, told Jean he was minimizing his illegal conduct. “I’m also concerned that hundreds of people have had their identities poached,” Hudson said.
The scam obtained identification information from people — many of them college students who do not ordinarily file tax returns — who thought they were applying for jobs and used the information to file phony tax returns.
Tax refunds were sought via TurboTax, which allows refunds to be sent on prepaid debit cards, some of which were mailed to Richmond-area mailboxes. Funds from a fraudulent return were transferred from one debit card to the card found in Jean’s shoe.
As outlined in sentencing papers, elements of the scam included:
The theft of personal identifying information from hundreds of individuals, many of them students, sometime using websites with false online job applications.
Use of hotels in Florida and Virginia to file tax returns via computers using the stolen identities.
Using the stolen identity information to check into hotels from which the returns were filed.
Directing TurboTax to mail pre-paid debit cards issued in the name of fraud victims to various addresses in the Richmond area from which the cards were taken from mail boxes.
The rapid transfer of funds from one pre-paid card to another.
The rental of the storage unit in Richmond where hundreds of cards containing stolen identifying information and computers used in the scheme were kept using a stolen identity.
William Brian Le Fevre, a special agent with the IRS, told Hudson, “We’re still trying to figure out exactly how much in tax refunds were released.”