TAMPA - Tampa Police say tax fraud suspects stole millions of dollars, blowing the cash on luxury cars like a $200,000 Bentley (now seized by federal agents).
The crooks dubbed their illegal operation, "Rain Parties,” according to detectives, referring to the tax refund money that flooded their mailboxes.
"They will steal those social security numbers, dates of birth, names, things like that that you need to file and sell them," explained Special Agent in Charge John Joyce, United States Secret Service.
Authorities say the tax fraud ring made huge amounts of quick cash by stealing the identities of grandmothers, babies, the deceased, and even a Police Lieutenant. They say they used the information to file fraudulent Turbo Tax returns and operated right under Uncle Sam's nose.
But Tampa Police were first alerted of the plan in October 2010 when they found a group of suspected drug-dealers gathered at a local motel instead of working a street corner.
"They were responding to a warrant for narcotics and when they entered the hotel room, there were individuals who were sitting around,” said Joyce. “To the shock of detectives, they see they're all on computers.”
The fraudulent tax filings reaped huge returns which investigators laid out on a table during a Friday media conference-- hundreds of intercepted tax return envelopes with debit cards stuffed inside.
Each envelope represents a person but many never knew their identities were stolen until it was too late.
"What we've found is our victims, they realize they're a victim when they go to file their tax return and it's bounced back and it says you've already filed," said Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor.
The debit cards are worth as much as five-thousand dollars a piece. Police say suspects like 22-year old Reginald Jennings used them at Tampa ATM's. They have surveillance video of Jennings at a local Publix making several withdrawals from one debit card. He was arrested after a Tampa Police officer confronted him, asking why the name on the debit card didn’t match his own.
"You feel violated as a taxpayer, that it's so easy for these individuals to go out there and just very easily accumulate these vast sums of money," said Keith Pennypacker of Wesley Chapel.
Pennypacker’s son’s name was on the card Jennings used to withdraw $2,200 dollars.
27-year old Logan Pennypacker is disabled. His father says he's never filed a tax return and relies on his parents for care.
They couldn't protect him this time.
"What we're suspicious about is that the individual who stole Logan's identity, his girlfriend is associated with Easter Seals,” said Pennypacker who explained his son attended an Easter Seals summer camp. He continued, “We feel that's more than a coincidence.”
Tampa Police believe the fraud ring ferreted out personal information from places like doctor's offices and local businesses.
The year-long investigation called "Operation Rainmaker" intercepted $100 million tax dollars, recovered $5 million and netted 49 arrests according to the Tampa Police Department.
The “Rain Party” suspects are in jail and their quick cash has dried-up. But investigators believe Tampa's tax fraud ring accounts for just a fraction of a nationwide problem.
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