Federal authorities in New Jersey charged 14 people Wednesday with running an identity-theft scheme that cost the U.S. Treasury $11.3 million in fraudulently obtained tax-refund checks.
The defendants allegedly filed 8,000 falsified federal income tax returns seeking $65 million in refunds.
In the past five years, such operations have become “wildly successful” and “one of the fastest growing and most pervasive crime schemes directed at government,” U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman said at a press conference.
“Stolen identity refund fraud” typically involves dozens of defendants and targets residents of Puerto Rico, because they have Social Security numbers but don’t pay federal income taxes unless employed by the federal government or a company headquartered elsewhere in the U.S.
Their identities are “ripe for the picking,” as their Social Security numbers are not connected to an Internal Revenue Service form 1040, Fishman said.
Schemers use the numbers, names and birthdates to file fraudulent 1040 forms, often electronically. They include false wage and tax withholding information and request issuance of refunds, by check, to addresses in their control or accessible to them.
A New Jersey task force, assembled in response to the issue and headed by the IRS and U.S. Postal Inspection Service, discovered a scheme operating locally.
It had been in existence since at least 2007 and allegedly was masterminded by Jose Torres, 46, of the Bronx, N.Y.
Torres and his co-conspirators had checks — worth, on average, $5,000 to $8,000 — sent to a handful of addresses they controlled in Nutley, Somerset, Newark, Shirley, N.Y., and elsewhere, prosecutors said.
Sometimes Torres and others allegedly bribed mail carriers to intercept the checks and deliver them to co-conspirators, or simply to use addresses on their mail routes. The defendants then allegedly filed the IRS forms, requesting checks be delivered to addresses along that route.
One mail carrier, Bennie Haynes, had a mail route in Somerset. In January, Haynes, then 52, of Dayton, was charged with theft of government property and mail theft by a postal employee.
Torres and the others sold the checks at less than face value to others, who deposited them in bank accounts — both fraudulently and legitimately held — or cashed them first, then deposited the money into the accounts, authorities said. They also allegedly attempted to buy check-cashing businesses to make it easier to process the refund checks.
Some conspirators allegedly used the proceeds for gambling as well as expensive homes, cars and vacations.
Investigators uncovered the scheme using cooperating witnesses’ statements, intercepted communications, consensual recordings, surveillance and subpoenaed records, and by tracing electronic IRS forms using Internet-protocol numbers to computers from which thousands were filed.
Manuel Rodriguez, 50, of Newark, who also allegedly obtained the checks and bought them from Torres, was approached by law enforcement officers in September 2010 and agreed to provide information, authorities said.
He allegedly admitted that Torres taught him how to file fraudulent 1040 forms and provided him with lists of identities of Puerto Rican residents.
Another defendant, Roberto Diaz, 44, of Demarest, became an informant in May. Diaz had previously helped Torres use a Cliffside Park mail route, after which Torres used one computer to file at least 2,033 tax returns to addresses on that route, prosecutors said.
To head off the checks, investigators also enlisted the help of mail carriers in the “hot spots” where the checks were often sent. That led mail carriers to intercept and turn over about $22 million worth of fraudulently obtained refund checks, authorities said.
In addition, $4 million in cash was seized during the investigation.
The defendants are charged with theft of government property, which carries a possible sentence of up to 10 years, and conspiracy to defraud the U.S., with a possible five-year term. Each charge carries a possible fine of up to $250,000 per count.
Prosecutors also are seeking forfeiture of ill-gotten funds.
Also charged, aside from Torres, Rodriguez and Diaz, are: Elian Matlovksy, 27, of New York; Ennio Guzman, 44, Newark; Porfirio Paredes, 44, Hazelton, Pa.; Rosa Marmol, 34, Grand Rapids, Mich.; Luis Martinez, 47, Matthews, N.C.; Alejandro Javier, 50, Newark; David Pinski, 73, Fort Lee; Michael Senatore, 41, Moscow, Pa.; Rosario Terzulli, 38, Brooklyn, N.Y.; Rigoberto Torres, 40, New Brunswick; and Wilson Jose, 43, the Bronx, N.Y. All have been arrested.
Fishman said authorities are having success obtaining tax-refund convictions.
One helpful tool is a new U.S. Justice Department’s Tax Division protocol that has relaxed approval requirements so prosecutors can bring tax cases more quickly, Fishman said.
Unused Social Security numbers are key to the schemes, Fishman said, likening Torres’ scam to one uncovered locally two years ago in “Operation Golden Brokers.” There, defendants allegedly sold Social Security numbers issued to migrant workers in Guam and other U.S. territories to others who used them to obtain credit cards for cash withdrawals and purchases.
Names of the attorneys were not immediately available for each defendant charged Wednesday.
Diaz’s lawyer, Paul Brickfield of Brickfield & Donahue in River Edge, did not return a call.