Stealing IDs off the Internet has become easier than swiping candy from a convenience store.
Consider the case of Rodney St. Fleur, who was recently charged with taking the names of 26,000 people from public databases, including prison inmates. He obtained their Social Security numbers through online LexisNexis research services at his employer’s law office in North Miami Beach, according to a search warrant.
Authorities say some of St. Fleur’s information ended up in the hands of Frantz Pierre, a one-time North Miami gang member who was arrested at his seven-bedroom Parkland home last week. Pierre is accused of heading a ring that collected nearly $2 million in fraudulent federal tax refunds on more than 300 pre-paid debit cards in 2010.
The alleged St. Fleur-Pierre connection highlights the relative ease of misappropriating the identities of everyone from prison inmates posted on open databases to the deceased listed on the Social Security Administration’s master file of dead people, authorities say. The trend fuels the Miami area’s ranking as the country’s ID theft capital.
The two defendants’ lawyers declined to comment or could not be reached. A LexisNexis spokeswoman said the company, which has cooperated with investigators, “limits access to sensitive, personally identifiable information” to “legitimate” business customers.
Perpetrators in South Florida, Tampa and other regions of the country exploit the identities of people who don’t file income tax returns, to avoid having the Internal Revenue Service detect duplicate filings. That strategic scam, coupled with the outright theft of everyday people’s IDs, which are then used to file phony tax returns, has robbed the U.S. government of billions of dollars yearly since the crime began spreading in 2008, according to a Treasury Department report.
“The victims generally tend to be either the most vulnerable members of our society or those who are not expected to file returns at all,” U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer said earlier this month, when his office announced the ID theft-tax fraud charges against St. Fleur, Pierre and 38 others in 20 different cases involving a total of 54,000 stolen identities.
South Florida victims of these and similar crimes run the gamut: police officers, Holocaust survivors, U.S. Marines stationed in Afghanistan, schoolchildren, hospital patients and senior citizens.
What’s fueling the fraud? Florida has the highest rate of identity theft in the country, with 178 complaints per 100,000 residents last year, followed by Georgia, with 120 complaints per 100,000 residents, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
“While identity theft in Florida ranks highest in the United States, the identity theft rate in Miami has reached near epidemic proportions,” Ferrer said, noting ID theft is the force behind the “tsunami” of tax-refund fraud. He added that Florida’s rate is “dwarfed” by that in the Miami area, with 324 complaints per 100,000 residents.
Much of the ID theft is carried out by gang members, drug traffickers and violent criminals who have aggressively shifted to tax-refund fraud once associated with white-collar criminals. An ex-NFL lineman who once played for the University of Miami, William Joseph, was caught earlier this year trying to cash a fraudulent refund check at an undercover check-cashing store run by the FBI in North Miami Beach. He recently pleaded guilty.