LAKE ALFRED — Nineteen people have been arrested by detectives from the Polk County Sheriff’s Office’s Identity Theft Task Force, and the suspects have been charged with defrauding local taxpayers and the Internal Revenue Service out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Their main victims: seniors in nurse homes whose medical records — complete with their dates of birth and Social Security numbers — were easy to find in their medical files.
It became a major temptation for these suspects, the sheriff’s office noted.
The arrests made on Tuesday are a continuation of a 2011 investigation that led to the Sept. 13, 2011, arrest of licensed practical nurse Cathy L. McClain, 41, of 605 Sunway Lane in Winter Haven, and the Aug. 16, 2011 arrest of Derail Bess, 30, of 642 Brookshire Drive in Davenport. They had been charged with a variety of crimes, including identity theft of more than 30 victims, criminal use of personal identification information, grand theft, and scheming to defraud. many of the victims were from the nursing home in Lake Alfred that McClain worked for.
Since last September, the investigation only got bigger and wider, said Scott Wilder, the communications director for the Polk County Sheriff’s Office.
“This is an ongoing investigation,” he said. “Detectives have discovered 399 fraudulent identities and uncovered $475,995.66 that had been fraudulently obtained from the IRS.”
McClain worked at the Brandywyne Nursing home in Lake Alfred as a nurse, and, according to the arrest report, she teamed up with Bess in this criminal operation and started providing him with the victims’ personal information — 83 identities in all. It was information that belonged to residents of the nursing home.
Bess used 18 of the victims’ personal information to create fake identities, which he then used to file for $87,722.24 in fraudulent income tax returns from the Internal Revenue Service.
Bess has since been convicted, and she got sentenced to five years in prison, 20 years probation, and restitution.
McClain hasn’t been sentenced yet.
In addition to Bess and McClain, detectives have arrested six others since last September, on charges that include identity theft, grand theft, forgery, and illegal use of a debit card.
”Eleven others have been arrested today on similar charges,” Wilder said on Tuesday.
Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd called it a major case, one that apprehended criminals who target the most vulnerable among us.
“These thieves are stealing identities from individuals — nursing home residents, dead people, and unsuspecting citizens,” Judd said. “Ultimately, they are stealing all of us — federal taxpayers — blind. They are shamelessly lying and filing false tax returns and the IRS is sending them money, literally no questions asked.”
Wilder said the way the tax fraud worked is the suspects would steal the victims’ identities, first by opening those medical files to get a name, Social Security number, and date of birth.
“Some criminals specialize in stealing identities,” Wilder said.
He noted that those working in a nursing home setting or an assisted living facility have easy access to medical files, and “can steal and then use or sell these names to other thieves. Some tax fraud criminals simply buy identities from others.”
The thieves then would file fraudulent tax returns, making up financial data that would provide them with a high tax return amount, often using tax credits in the IRS code.
“They often use electronic tax preparers so that they can get ‘refunds’ quicker and easier,” Wilder said.
Next, they receive those “tax refunds” from the IRS, made out to the stolen identity in one of several ways, including getting a federal check in the mail, getting the refunds direct deposited into their account or a new bank account created to receive the refund, or have the refunds placed on a pre-paid debit card or other pre-paid card service.
“The thieves then convert payments into purchases, cash, or money orders via financial institutions or retailers,” Wilder said.
Bess, he noted, got the victims’ information from McClain and used it to obtain $87,722.24 in bogus tax returns.
When Bess was arrested, he was found in possession of 83 identities. The victims were all residents of Brandywyne Nursing Home in Lake Alfred.
The criminal case facing McClain is still pending in the courts.
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