An employee for a company that offers fraud detection services was stealing hundreds of people's personal information from the firm and selling it for use in tax fraud, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office reported.
The arrest of Joseph Burden — who authorities say stole the information of more than 200 individuals — is just "the tip of the iceberg" of the underground economy that has flourished locally involving employees stealing data from their bosses for tax fraud, a sheriff's investigator said Friday.
"We believe this is just one of many more instances that are going to occur in the future," said sheriff's Cpl. Bruce Crumpler. "This is just proof that they're coming from places that are supposed to be secure."
Tampa police last year arrested an employee for a company that sells home security systems and charged her with stealing customer information for use in tax fraud.
Authorities say this kind of information — often taken from medical facilities and companies that perform credit checks — has fueled an explosion in tax refund fraud. Criminals use the information to file tax returns with fake income and deduction amounts. The tax returns are submitted and used to obtain fraudulent tax refunds.
Officials estimate that criminals have stolen hundreds of millions of dollars this way in the Tampa area alone, and billions nationwide.
Burden, 29, told investigators he stole the names, birth dates and Social Security numbers from his employer, ProVest, a legal support services firm, according to the sheriff's office. It was not clear if the information was from customers or fellow employees.
Among the services provided by ProVest, they include/ process service, loss mitigation and fraud detection related to mortgages.
Contacted for comment on the arrest, the company issued a prepared statement from its president, James Ward: "Management at ProVest just became aware of the information theft allegations against an employee at ProVest. We are very concerned and committed to working closely with law enforcement authorities to learn all of the facts in this case. ProVest has placed the employee on leave.
"ProVest takes data security and privacy seriously; numerous precautions are and have been in place to safely guard consumer data."
Crumpler said ProVest has been working with the deputies and has been "helpful and cooperative" in the investigation.
The Tampa-based company would not say how long Burden has worked there or what his job entailed.
Asked how many customers' or employees' identities may have been compromised and whether the firm has notified those affected, Ward said in another statement: "ProVest is working with authorities to identify if any persons identity has been compromised and, if so, will certainly provide notice and credit monitoring as required and appropriate."
According to its website, ProVest employs close to 1,000 associates and provides customer service support from 15 offices nationwide.
Burden was arrested Thursday night after an undercover deputy met him at the intersection of Woodland Corporate Boulevard and Waters Avenue West, according to the sheriff's office. Burden sold the deputy three pages containing 33 names for about $200 or $300, Crumpler said.
Deputies searched Burden's book bag and found another 18 pages with names, Social Security numbers and dates of birth inside a newspaper. A total of 221 names were discovered.
Crumpler said Burden sold information relatively inexpensively. Investigators have heard Social Security numbers can fetch $200 to $300 each or even as much as $5,000 per number.
Tampa police last year arrested an employee at a company that sold ADT alarm systems.
Rachel Amones worked as a "closer" for Tampa Signal. After an employee sells someone a security system, the closer takes personal information for credit checks.
Police said Amones had access to forms filled out by other closers at Tampa Signal.
Amones told authorities she and another employee sold the information of about 3,000 Tampa Signal customers to people who committed tax fraud, according to a police investigation report.
Amones is now serving three years in state prison for fraudulent use of personal identification.
Tampa police last year arrested suspected drug dealers who had medical records from the Veterans Administration. In October, suspects arrested in a motor vehicle stop had preloaded TurboTax debit cards and medical records from Tampa Bay Endoscopy Center, according to a police investigation report.
Officials with the Endoscopy Center released a statement saying, "While we can't speak to specifics, we can tell you that when this situation was brought to our attention, the employee involved was immediately terminated. Every affected patient was notified immediately about this unfortunate situation. We set up a call center hotline and offered at our expense credit monitoring services for those affected. We are continuing to fully cooperate with the legal authorities and hope those who perpetrated this crime will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."