Tampa’s role as “ground zero” in the national tax refund fraud epidemic was in the national spotlight again today as a city police detective testified for the second time in front of a U.S. Senate committee investigating possible solutions to the fraud that has cost federal taxpayers billions nationwide.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., convened a meeting of the Senate’s Special Committee on Aging to focus on how senior citizens and others who aren’t required to file tax returns are vulnerable to identity thieves who use their information to file phony tax returns.
Nelson has championed legislative proposals to address the problem, and is now pushing a bill with two co-sponsors aimed at protecting victims, shutting down identity theft schemes, protecting Social Security numbers and improving enforcement efforts.
Among other things, the legislation would increase 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.
The bill would also aim to make the IRS better able to detect fraud by giving the agency access to more real-time taxpayer information at the start at tax season. Currently, there is a delay before the IRS receives W-2 information, forcing the agency to trust that tax returns are completed honestly and verify through audits later.
The IRS, which was seemingly slow to respond to the outbreak of tax fraud among street criminals, has made strides, especially in working with law enforcement in the past year.
Tampa Detective Sal Augeri, who last year criticized the IRS for being “of little assistance in these investigations” when he testified before another committee chaired by Nelson, today noted “significant positive changes,” including a waiver program that allows law enforcement access to previously private tax information with permission of victims.
The IRS recently expanded the waiver program, which was launched last year in Florida, to the entire nation.
As if to underscore the increased enforcement activity by the IRS Criminal Investigation Division, a Tampa couple, Tressa V. Guy and Brian E. Simmons, were arrested today on an indictment charging them with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and multiple counts of wire fraud, access device fraud and aggravated identity theft
According to the indictment, Guy and Simmons participated in a scheme involving the submission of at least 322 income tax returns claiming at least $2,701,844 in fraudulent refunds.
Senators on Nelson’s committee, however, were outraged at the IRS inability to prevent fraudulent refunds from being issued in the first place, citing an Inspector General report that one address in Michigan received more than 2,000 refunds.
The IRS was not on hand to answer the senators’ questions, and Nelson said he expects to see a representative from the agency when he chairs another committee hearing on Monday.