South Florida

North Miami man convicted of cashing $11 million in tax-refund checks for dead people

Miami Herald File

His North Miami business cashed more than 2,000 tax refund checks issued in the names of people who were dead or disabled.

The refunds added up to more than $11 million, courtesy of the Internal Revenue Service.

Now, Junior Jean Baptiste faces up to 20 years in prison at his sentencing in October after being convicted Tuesday by a Miami federal jury of money laundering, theft of government funds, stealing identities and possessing false driver's licenses. His crime, though commonplace in Miami during the past decade, stands out for the sheer volume of stolen identities and fraudulent checks.

Baptiste, 36, who operated a check-cashing store called Surveillance Masters, regularly took a fee of half the value of the checks. They ranged from $1,000 to $9,000 each.

Trial evidence showed that Baptiste used the ill-gotten check-cashing fees to buy a cargo ship, multiple vehicles and the rights to an album of a hip-hop artist.

He also made false identification documents for his files as part of the scheme, which lasted from 2009 to 2011, according to prosecutors Michael Berger and Michael Nadler. They presented trial evidence showing that Baptiste possessed more than 900 false driver's licenses, work permits and green cards.

IRS criminal investigators made the case against Baptiste, who was convicted for offenses typical of the early wave of ID theft and tax-refund fraud. In recent years, however, hundreds of offenders have been using stolen IDs to file fabricated tax returns electronically. The IRS then issues their refunds downloaded onto prepaid debit cards.

While the IRS has stepped up efforts to slow down the flow of fraudulent refunds, Miami remains the nation’s capital of such crimes.