State House members unanimously agreed this week to support a bill that makes it easier for law enforcement to put identity thieves out of business and behind bars.
A similar measure is moving through the state Senate, and the bill can be expected to arrive on Gov. Rick Scottís desk shortly. This bill cannot be signed and put into law soon enough.
As Tampa Tribune reporter Elaine Silvestrini has revealed over the past two years, Tampa is ground zero for tax fraud cases involving thieves who use stolen identities to file false tax returns and reap the refunds.
Under current law, law enforcement officers are hamstrung when encountering someone with lists of stolen Social Security numbers or debit cards in other peopleís names. They can seize the evidence, but they canít make an arrest until investigating further. The thieves often disappear into the shadows.
The House and Senate bills make it a crime to possess the personal information of other people without authorization and give law enforcement the authority to make an arrest on the spot. Those in possession of fewer than five identifies would face misdemeanor charges, while those in possession of five or more identities would face felony charges.
Sen. Arthenia Joyner, a Democrat from Tampa, is a driving force behind the legislation and the sponsor of the Senate bill that is expected to be passed as soon as next week. She expects the bill to be signed by Scott, and perhaps become law in July.
We hope the federal government shares the same sense of urgency.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson is behind a bill to shut down identity theft schemes. It increases the maximum penalty for tax-related identity theft from three years to five years behind bars and the fine from $100,000 to $250,000. It also gives the IRS a better chance of detecting fraud before sending out bogus refunds.
Law enforcement and the IRS need every tool available to combat the tax-fraud scourge, which has drained millions of dollars from the federal government and delayed refunds due to thousands of taxpayers. It can be months, or even years, before victims get a refund the IRS mistakenly issued to thieves.
During a recent court hearing for a defendant charged with fraud, a federal judge wondered how someone with a seventh-grade education was able to steal millions from the IRS. ďI want to know why the people in the IRS arenít paying more attention to whatís going on,Ē U.S. Magistrate Thomas Wilson said.
Donít we all.