Ringleader of $24M identity theft ring gets 15 years

Federal authorities say that the sentencing of a woman on Friday brings to an end a huge $24 million scheme in which 10 women from Alabama and Georgia stole more than 9,000 identities from the U.S. Army, several Alabama state agencies and Georgia companies and used them to defraud the government through falsified tax returns.

Keisha Lanier, who the U.S. Attorney’s Office prosecuted as the ringleader of the operation, was sentenced to 15 years in prison to be followed by three years of supervised release. She was also ordered to forfeit $5,811,406.

“Today’s sentence brings to a close an extensive criminal network led by Keisha Lanier and designed to victimize U.S. citizens and defraud the U.S. Treasury of over $20 million in fraudulent refund claims,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Ciraolo.

“The substantial sentences imposed on Ms. Lanier and her co-defendants send a clear message that those who chose to engage in such criminal conduct will pay a very heavy price.”

The resident of Newnan, Georgia was sentenced by U.S. District Court Judge Kristi K. DuBose of the Southern District of Alabama, according to U.S. Attorney George L. Beck Jr. of the Middle District of Alabama, which is located in Montgomery.

Between January 2011 and December 2013, Lanier and Tracy Mitchell led a large-scale identity theft ring in which Lanier, Mitchell and their co-defendants filed more than 9,000 false individual federal income tax returns that claimed more than $24 million in fraudulent claims for tax refunds, according to information in court documents and at the sentencing hearings,

The IRS paid out close to $10 million in refunds on these fraudulent claims.

The defendants obtained the stolen identities from various sources, including from the U.S. Army, several Alabama state agencies, a Georgia call center and employee records from a Georgia company.

Mitchell, who worked at the hospital located at Fort Benning, Georgia where she had access to the identification data of military personnel, stole the personal information of soldiers, including those who were deployed to Afghanistan.

Lanier was only the latest in a long line of women from Alabama and Georgia who have been sentenced in the scheme:

And on Aug. 7, the following sentences were imposed on Lanier’s other co-defendants:

  •  Tracy Mitchell, of Phenix City, Alabama, was sentenced to serve 13 years and three months in prison to be followed by three years of supervised release and ordered to forfeit $329,242, which was seized in cash from her residence;
  • Talarius Paige, of Phenix City, was sentenced to serve 12 years in prison to be followed by three years of supervised release and ordered to pay $762,512 in restitution to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS);
  •  Mequetta Snell-Quick, of Columbus, Georgia, was sentenced to serve two years and one day in prison to be followed by two years of supervised release and ordered to pay $199,471 in restitution to the IRS;
  •  Latasha Mitchell, of Phenix City, was sentenced to serve three years in prison to be followed by two years of supervised release and ordered to pay $513,821 in restitution to the IRS;
  • Dameisha Mitchell, of Phenix City, was sentenced to serve five years and five months in prison to be followed by three years of supervised release and ordered to pay $440,176 in restitution to the IRS;
  •  Sharondra Johnson, of Phenix City, was sentenced to serve two years in prison to be followed by two years of supervised release and ordered to pay $440,176 in restitution to the IRS;
  •  Patrice Taylor, of Midland, Georgia, was sentenced to serve one year and one day in prison to be followed by two years of supervised release and ordered to pay $28,783 in restitution to the IRS; and
  •  Cynthia Johnson, of Phenix City, was sentenced to two years of probation and ordered to pay $5,047 in restitution to the IRS.

Floyd stole personal information from two Alabama state agencies and provided those names to Lanier. Lanier provided those names to Tracy Mitchell, Latasha Mitchell, Paige and others to file false tax returns. Lanier also obtained stolen identities from the Alabama Department of Corrections.

Paige and Taylor worked in a call center for a payment-processing company in Columbus and stole identities. Paige, in turn, used those identities to file false tax returns, some of which he filed from Tracy Mitchell’s residence. Tracy and Latasha Mitchell also obtained employee files from a Columbus company and used those identities to file false tax returns.

To file the false tax returns, the defendants obtained several IRS Electronic Filing Numbers in the names of sham tax businesses. On behalf of those sham tax businesses, the defendants applied for bank products from various financial institutions. Under the guise of a legitimate business account, the institutions mailed blank check stock to the defendants’ homes.

The defendants directed the IRS to pay anticipated tax refunds to prepaid debit cards, in U.S. Treasury checks and to financial institutions, which in turn issued the tax refunds via prepaid debit cards or checks. When the refunds were sent through the financial institutions, the defendants simply printed out the refund checks from the check stock that had been sent to their homes.

After a period of time, the financial institutions stopped permitting the defendants to print out the tax refund checks. To continue the scheme, Tracy Mitchell and members of her family recruited U.S. Postal Service employees. The corrupt postal employees specified addresses along their postal routes to have the U.S. Treasury checks mailed, then obtained those checks and turned them over to the defendants for a fee.

The scheme also involved a complex money laundering operation. Nearly $10 million in fraudulent tax refund checks were cashed at several businesses located in Alabama, Georgia and Kentucky. To coordinate this massive check cashing scheme, the defendants communicated using text messages and maintained detailed records.

For instance, Sharondra Johnson worked at the Wal-Mart money center in Columbus, where she cashed checks for customers as part of her job. Dameisha Mitchell recruited her to cash tax refund checks that were fraudulently issued in the names of other individuals. Sharondra Johnson agreed to cash the checks and communicated with Dameisha and Tracy Mitchell via text messages. In an attempt to conceal the crime from Wal-Mart, the defendants had multiple individuals deliver the tax refund checks to Johnson for her to cash them.

Beck was particularly appalled at the crimes carried out against soldiers serving in Afghanistan.

“No sentence is too strong for those who prey on our fighting men and women,” said U.S. Attorney Beck Jr. “War is hell on the home front, too, and the family left behind holding things together must be strongly protected.”

At sentencing, the government offered victim impact statements from several individuals whose identities were stolen, from family members, and from companies and governmental agencies where the identity theft breaches occurred.

The mother of a U.S. Army soldier whose identity was stolen submitted a statement describing the consequences of the fraud on her and her family:

“While [my son] was fighting for our country and all back home, I received a very disturbing phone call from an Agent from the IRS that my son, while at Ft. Benning training to defend our country … had his identity stolen and fraudulent tax returns were filed with his social security number. This news was devastating to think that my 19-year-old son, who was defending the very freedom this country stands for, was wronged by one of those people he was willing to die for.

“My whole family could not believe what was happening. We now had to worry about this terrible act by one of our own. As I tried my best to keep composed and handle all of the gruesome mounds of paperwork to get this straightened out with the IRS, my son was then denied his tax refund. This created a financial hardship on him. We were too afraid to tell him while he was deployed because we did not want to worry him and we wanted him to focus only on getting home alive and not have to worry about such an atrocious act by someone who did not even know him.”

Article source: http://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com/story/news/2015/09/28/ringleader-identity-theft-ring-gets-years/72990478/

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