TAMPA BAY - Tax filing season begins at the end of the month, and local law enforcement tells the I-Team they are putting more resources than ever before to protect taxpayers from identity theft. It's been a frequent problem in the Tampa Bay areas for years.
"I believe nationwide, we are the leading area for refund fraud," said Cpl. Bruce Crumpler of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.
Identity thieves have made millions off of taxpayers in Tampa Bay. Law enforcement calls it an epidemic. Almost anyone can be a victim, investigators say. Criminals typically buy stolen social security numbers from people who have obtained them illegally. They then use that personal information to file tax returns and collect the refunds before the victim ever has a chance to. Often, the victim doesn't realize what's happened until they file their own returns.
It's clear the crime is profitable. Some recent local arrests have led to the recovery of millions of dollars and several luxury cars have been impounded.
But local law enforcement agencies hope to put a significant dent in the tax fraud industry this year.
"I think you're going to see a lot more arrests, a lot more prosecution, and I think the community as a whole is going to see a big difference," said Sgt. Pat Kennedy of the Tampa Police Department.
For the first time, the IRS is working with local agencies like the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, Tampa Police Department, and several other departments across the area, giving them access to tax records so they can track down the ID thieves.
"Now when we have the IRS embedded with our department, we're able to get that information back quicker. The sooner we get that information, the sooner we can act on it," Cpl. Crumpler said.
Each agency is also adding more detectives to their unit, focused primarily on catching perpetrators of tax fraud.
"It allows us to have more agents in the field identifying these crimes, investigating these crimes," said assistant special agent in charge Ismael Nevarez Jr. of the Internal Revenue Service.
The new task force doesn't expect to end Tampa's tax fraud problem, but they at least hope to make significant progress in reducing the crime.
"We're going to go whatever we can to put a stop to it," Cpl. Crumpler said.
Detectives recommend people file as early as possible in order to thwart identity thieves. If the IRS already has your return on file when a criminal sends a false one in, they're much more likely to recognize the fake. Experts also recommend protecting your personal information by only giving it out when absolutely necessary, and doing regular checks on your credit and bank accounts.
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