Detectives often make undercover drug buys to catch drug dealers.
Now they’re making undercover purchases of personal information like Social Security numbers to catch suspects involved in tax fraud.
On Thursday night, Hillsborough County sheriff’s detectives arrested Amanda Hunter, 29, following two undercover purchases of lists of names, Social Security numbers and dates of birth, according to Cpl. Bruce Crumpler. Hunter obtained the information by surfing the Internet on computers in a public library, investigators said.
Crumpler said sheriff’s investigators have not come across much library use by criminals committing tax refund fraud because most of them use computers to access the Internet behind private doors.
But because the websites suspects visit are perfectly legal, there’s no reason library computer filters would block them, so Crumpler said he sees the potential that more criminals will take advantage of libraries.
“I wouldn’t blame the library for it because people are using a good thing to do a bad thing, but we’ll monitor it,” he said.
Crumpler’s fraud unit usually employs traditional white-collar crime investigation techniques: subpoenaing documents, following paper trails.
But street criminals now are committing white-collar crimes, finding tax refund fraud easy and lucrative. So white-collar crime investigators are adapting to use traditional street-crime investigative methods.
“We typically don’t get involved in undercover investigations when it comes to selling things,” Crumpler said. “It’s rare to get out into the street level. In this type of crime, when it deals with identity theft, specifically related to refund fraud, we’re going to see more and more of that.”
During each undercover purchase involving Hunter, detectives bought information on about 40 individuals for $900, Crumpler said.
Sites Hunter visited, he said, included court clerk sites, but Crumpler didn’t know which courts. Although criminals often use information widely available on deceased individuals for use in tax fraud, the victims in this case, Crumpler said, are “alive and they were local.”
Crumpler said when investigators determined it was time to arrest Hunter, they looked for her for two days without success. Hunter, he said, doesn’t have a home. “She goes from motel to motel. Trying to locate her wasn’t easy for us.”
They planned, at one point, to arrest her when she arrived for a scheduled court hearing on a prior drug case, but she didn’t show, Crumpler said.
“Once we pretty much exhausted everything we could do to try to find her,” he said, “we went to the old-fashioned way. (We) hit the streets.”
Knowing Hunter was in Tampa, the sheriff’s office turned to the Tampa Police ROC street crimes squad, which found her within a few hours at the East Gate Motel in Seminole Heights.
Unlike some others arrested in tax fraud cases, Crumpler said, Hunter did not appear to have a lot of money. She didn’t live lavishly and didn’t have designer handbags and shoes or a new car.
But her role in the scheme, he said, “is just as important as anybody else; she’s actually compromising people’s information.”