The failure to pay for a self-storage unit on West Broad Street may have unraveled a sophisticated scam to defraud the IRS out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
According to documents filed in U.S. District Court in Richmond, a group allegedly gained personal identification information from people who believed they were applying for jobs advertised on the Internet.
The group took the job applicants’ information and filed phony tax returns via online tax services, authorities say. As of May, an initial investigation showed at least 133 suspected fake returns were filed in 2010 and 2011 seeking more than $700,000 in refunds.
On Friday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael C. Moore told U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson that the investigation thus far has shown there are a minimum of 700 tax returns involved.
Documents say that many of the returns were filed via TurboTax, which allows refunds to be sent in prepaid debit cards. The cards were sent to mailboxes in the Richmond area, picked up by conspirators and promptly used at ATMs or for other purposes.
The scheme surfaced last year when a suspect allegedly used another person’s identity to rent a unit at West End Self Storage at 9120 W. Broad St. and then did not pay the bill.
Ramoth Jean, 33, of Miami was arraigned in U.S. District Court in Richmond on Friday. He was charged with five counts of mail fraud, conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud, access device fraud and aggravated identity theft. Jean, indicted earlier this week, pleaded not guilty to the eight charges and a four-day jury trial was set for Sept. 30. The crimes are alleged to have occurred from Nov. 18, 2011, through June 21.
Authorities have not identified any other suspects in the case.
According to an affidavit filed May 14 by Thomas R. Kingry, a U.S. postal inspector, Henrico County police were called by management at the self-storage facility and told that a unit was apparently being rented by someone engaged in identity theft.
On Aug. 25, 2012, police encountered Jean and a woman at the self-storage facility and determined that Jean had removed a cardboard box from one of the units. Jean said he was picking up the box to ship to someone in Boston, said Kingry.
Jean allowed police to search him and a debit card bearing the name of someone else was discovered in his left shoe. Jean told police he found the card and that it belonged to a cousin, according to the affidavit.
Jean was arrested and the cardboard box seized. However, he was later released because the officer could not prove the card was stolen and a magistrate found there was no probable cause to issue a warrant for credit card theft.
A warrant was obtained to search the box, however, and it was found to hold tax documents and correspondence mailed from the IRS and TurboTax to addresses in the Richmond area.
Other items in the box included two laptop computers, a USB flash drive, CDs, prepaid debit cards and index cards containing the personal identifying information of roughly 800 people in several states.
A federal search warrant for the computers was issued on Nov. 19, and court documents say those searches showed the computers were accessed by Jean in an attempt to steal identities and use them to electronically file individual returns to obtain refunds.
Grand jury subpoenas were served on a sample of the seized debit cards and it was discovered that an unspecified number of them were funded with income tax refunds.
“One common theme with all of the cards reviewed, however, was that very shortly after they were funded, cash withdrawals were quickly made depleting the majority of the cards’ existing balances,” wrote Kingry.
“These transactions totaled tens of thousands of dollars,” he added.
Kingry said it appeared that some of the cards were used to make charges to CareerBuilder.com and Snagajob.com to pay for help-wanted advertisements used to snare the personal identity information from unwitting job applicants.