Third woman charged in widespread identity theft scheme – Sun Sentinel

A simple shoplifting complaint at a Florida mall led investigators to a widespread fraud scheme in which women from Palm Beach County worked together to steal at least 790 identities, according to court documents.

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The U.S. Attorney’s Office on Friday announced the arrest of a third woman in connection with the scheme, which spanned five Florida counties as well as other states.

Starling Willis, 32, of West Palm Beach, has been charged with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of aggravated identity theft, records show. If convicted, Willis faces a maximum of 22 years in prison.

Willis was recruited by Latonia Verdell, a convicted felon from Greenacres who orchestrated the scheme and was known to make “90 percent of the tax money in the town,” according to court documents. Prosecutors say Willis allowed Verdell to use her personal bank accounts to receive payments of tax refunds from fake income tax returns.

“Willis allegedly opened additional bank accounts, at various banks, expressly for the purpose of receiving some of the fraudulent tax refund payments,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said in a news release. “Willis would then withdraw the monies and share them with Verdell.”

A search of Verdell’s home revealed evidence of identity theft, including tax returns, driver’s licenses, Social Security cards, bank statements, debit cards and log books containing names, dates of birth and Social Security numbers, according to court documents. Investigators also found a piece of paper containing handwritten banking information for accounts belonging to Willis.

Willis initially told investigators back in 2013 that she was familiar with deposits being made into her bank accounts but that they were payday loans, not tax refunds, according to court documents. She later changed her story.

In a May 11 interview, Willis told investigators that Verdell had told her that she and her partner, Kelli Mclntosh, 39, also of Palm Beach County, had bank accounts which could not receive any more tax refunds, according to a criminal complaint. Verdell offered Willis a chance to make money by accepting the refunds and giving Verdell the money, the complaint said.

The scheme resulted in the submission to the IRS of more than 590 false returns, seeking approximately $1.5 million in fraudulent income tax refunds, prosecutors said.

Verdell and McIntosh were charged May 14 with wire fraud, aggravated identity theft and theft of public money, among other offenses, records show. Trial is scheduled for them on Oct. 5.

The court has not yet scheduled a trial date for Willis.

Staff writer Paula McMahon and staff researcher Barbara Hijek contributed to this report.

emiller@tribune.com, 954-356-4544 or Twitter @EmilyBethMiller

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Article source: http://www.sun-sentinel.com/local/palm-beach/fl-palm-beach-790-identities-stolen-20150724-story.html

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