Miami-Dade County

Ripping off your refunds: One case cracked open the tax racket

North Miami Beach police detectives Rocky Festa, left, and Craig Catlin worked the first case that alerted law enforcement to the booming trade in tax fraud.
North Miami Beach police detectives Rocky Festa, left, and Craig Catlin worked the first case that alerted law enforcement to the booming trade in tax fraud. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Veteran North Miami Beach police detective Craig Catlin had been busting street gangs and dope dealers for years.

But these days, he’s chasing viral crimes he had never heard of as a Florida State University criminology major. Catlin is widely credited with focusing law enforcement attention on South Florida’s fastest-growing racket: ID thieves picking the pockets of the Internal Revenue Service.

“When I first started in this unit, they were selling dope on the street corners — but they’re not out there anymore,” the fast-talking, barrel-chested investigator told the Miami Herald. “Now, 80 percent of my arrests are for ID theft and tax fraud.”

The 48-year-old Catlin was working gang duty when he first stumbled across the emerging criminal industry on Miami-Dade’s streets.

In June 2010, Catlin and another gang unit detective were patrolling in an unmarked car when they saw a white Cadillac with illegal tinted windows. They checked the temporary tag and found the car was registered to a known gang member from the city’s west side, Frantz Pierre, according to a police report.

Catlin had a marked patrol car make the traffic stop so he and the other detective could observe. They also called in another detective, Rocky Festa, to check out the occupants.

Frantz wasn’t in the car, but his brother Terry was, sitting in the front passenger seat. Festa asked if there were any guns or drugs in the car. Nope. But then he noticed four MasterCard debit cards, with Post-it notes attached to them, on the center console.

“Those aren’t mine,” Terry Pierre told him. “A friend left them in the car. Go ahead and keep them.”

Those cards, handed over freely, wound up providing the first clues to a burgeoning tax-fraud enterprise. The name of a Miami business, Tax Professors LLC, was embossed on the front. But the business address curiously turned out to be a bakery.

Catlin called the debit-card issuer, PayCard USA, to inquire about the cards and company. He was told the prepaid cards were loaded with tax refunds for four different people — all, it would turn out, proved to be Florida prison inmates.

Digging deeper, he learned that Tax Professors handled hundreds of other suspicious refund claims — also in other prisoners’ names. PayCard USA froze the company’s account.

When Catlin found out that Terry Pierre had previously used the same debit cards to make repeated withdrawals at assorted ATMs — transactions recorded on video — he knew he had discovered a serious and sophisticated scam.

“I called the Secret Service, and said, ‘Holy s---, we’ve got something huge,’” recalled Catlin. “It opened up a Pandora’s box to what the Pierre brothers were doing with their tax-fraud scheme.”

Catlin, in collaboration with the Secret Service and IRS investigative agents, put together the entire case against the Pierre brothers for the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

When federal agents executed a search warrant at Frantz Pierre’s seven-bedroom home in upscale Parkland in June 2012, his brother Terry was spotted tossing laptops from the second floor towards the pool. During the search, agents found more than 70 prepaid debit cards and a thumb drive with more than 2,000 people’s names, along with their birth dates and Social Security numbers.

In October 2013, a Miami federal jury found Frantz Pierre, Terry Pierre and Christmanie Bissainthe guilty of submitting $2.2 million in fake refund claims to the IRS. Of that, the tax agency paid $1.9 million on debit cards issued to the brothers’ business, Tax Professors.

It certainly wasn’t South Florida’s first tax fraud case but it intensified the investigative spotlight, showing that the lucrative enterprise was even luring street gangs. Since that first bust, Catlin has regularly gone out on “Wolfpack” street patrols with a federal task force — which includes local, state and federal law enforcement officers — to hunt down ID theft-tax fraud suspects. The patrols have generated dozens of federal criminal cases.

Catlin, an 18-year police veteran who is often tapped to teach law enforcement classes on the topic, said the crime has rapidly spread from his own backyard, North Miami Beach — mostly driven by a younger, Americanized, digitally savvy generation.

“It became a cancer in the Haitian community,” Catlin said. “We have 16-year-olds doing this now. ... This is easy money for them.”

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