Twenty-five people accused of using thousands of stolen identities to claim $36 million in fraudulent tax refunds have been arrested in the latest South Florida sweep, federal authorities said Thursday.
Among those charged in 19 separate cases is a middle school food service worker who swiped the identities of at least 400 Miami-Dade County students, a mail carrier charged with filching tax documents out of mailboxes and a jail guard who stole identities of inmates, according to Miami U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer.
Florida has led the nation in identity theft for the past three years, with a rate of about 193 complaints per 100,000 residents in 2013, according to the Federal Trade Commission. The Miami area is far worse, with a 2013 rate of 340 complaints per 100,000 residents.
Ferrer said the latest batch of arrests brings to nearly 300 people charged with identity theft and tax fraud since a special strike force was established in August 2012. Those cases involved more than $485 million in fraudulent tax refund claims to the Internal Revenue Service, of which about $106 million was actually paid out.
"This has become an epidemic in South Florida," Ferrer said at a news conference. "It is also becoming a consumer's worst nightmare."
George L. Piro, chief of the Miami FBI field office said, "Criminals all over South Florida are turning to computers to make an easy buck at the public's expense."
But many of the latest suspects wouldn't fit the typical criminal profile.
A case in point is Pamela Rhim-Grant, 40, a food service manager at Miami's Horace Mann Middle School. Prosecutors say Rhim-Grant used her access to a systemwide database of student information to steal over 400 identities that were used to file 216 fraudulent tax returns.
Rhim-Grant has pleaded not guilty to computer fraud conspiracy and identity theft charges and is free on $100,000 bail.
Authorities said people must take extra safeguards to protect personal information, such as shredding sensitive paperwork before tossing it out and not carrying around a Social Security card. It's also advisable to file tax returns as early as possible and make sure any tax preparer is well-established and reliable.