MIAMI: Bruce Parton was only a few weeks from retirement after 30 years as a mail carrier in sunny Florida. He never lived to fulfill his retirement plan of moving back to a quiet life in the Catskill mountains of New York, not far from where he grew up on Long Island.
Instead, he was gunned down on his daily mail route in December 2010 by members of an identity theft ring who stole his master key as part of a scheme to claim fraudulent tax refunds.
Using stolen names and Social Security numbers, criminals are filing phony electronic tax forms to claim refunds, exploiting a slow-moving federal bureaucracy to collect the money before victims, or the Internal Revenue Service, discover the fraud.
Parton was a victim of what officials say has ballooned into a massive, and dangerous, illegal industry that could cost the nation $21 billion over the next five years, according to the U.S. Treasury Department.
While that is a relatively small sum compared to the $1.1 trillion collected from individual tax payers in the last fiscal year, the crime has been growing by leaps and bounds in the last three years.
"We are on the top of a national trend that is causing a hemorrhage of tax dollars," said Wifredo Ferrer, United States Attorney for south Florida. "It's a tsunami of fraud." While the IRS says it has detected cases in every state except North Dakota and West Virginia, the fraud's epicenter is Florida, and it is mostly concentrated in Miami and Tampa.
Miami has 46 times the per-capita rate of false tax refund claims than the rest of the country, and 70 times the national average in dollar terms, Ferrer said. "For whatever reason, we always tend to lead the nation when it comes to fraud," he said, noting that his office has been battling massive Medicare fraud in recent years that has since spread to other parts of the country.
Florida's high proportion of older residents, who can be more vulnerable to fraud, may be one reason for the high levels of fraud in the state. Nationwide, the number of cases of tax identity theft detected by authorities sky-rocketed to more than 1.2 million cases in 2012 from only 48,000 in 2008, according to the Treasury Department.
The real number of phony tax filings is likely much higher as the fraud is hard to track, according to a November General Accountability Office report. The tax ID theft problem is particularly troubling as, unlike Medicare fraud, it is associated with violent crime and armed gangs.