Crime

Feds spotlight growing theft of Social Security benefits

U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer
U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer U.S. Attorney’s Office

As the feds put the screws to South Florida criminals who steal income-tax refunds, more thieves have come up with alternative scams to rip off government benefits — most notably, from elderly Social Security recipients, according to authorities.

By tapping into a federal website, “My Social Security,” they have been able to use previously swiped names, dates of birth and ID numbers to open online accounts and redirect retirement benefits from the victims to themselves.

“They have nimbly changed their behavior in response” to the government’s crackdown on tax fraud offenders, U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer said this month, after his office charged about 60 people with a variety of theft crimes against government agencies, banks, department stores and credit card companies. “We refuse to be complacent.”

Among the notable new cases:

▪ Frisler Clairvil, 29, of Lauderdale Lakes was charged in mid-November with stealing more than 1,300 identities of Social Security recipients and redirecting more than $300,000 in benefits to himself by manipulating personal information on the “My Social Security” website from 2013 to 2015, according to an indictment.

Once the online accounts were opened in the victims’ names, Clairvil and unnamed co-conspirators arranged to have the benefit payments deposited into bank accounts, authorities said. And to hide the theft, Clairvil and the others opened bank accounts using other people’s stolen identities.

Clairvil, who has pleaded not guilty, is being represented by the federal public defender’s office because he cannot afford his own lawyer.

▪ Samonique Honer, 26, of Miami, was charged in mid-November with carrying out a similar scheme to redirect Social Security benefits as well as deposit fraudulent tax-refund checks into a bank account, according to a criminal complaint. Last year, Honer incorporated a company, Hooner Financial Accounting Services, and opened an account at Citibank in its name to receive the fraudulent transfers and deposits, the complaint said.

Video surveillance cameras captured Honer and unnamed co-conspirators withdrawing funds from the company’s bank account, according to the complaint.

Honer, who has not yet been arraigned, is also being represented by the federal public defender’s office.

Margaret Moore-Jackson, special agent in charge of the Social Security Administration’s Office of Inspector General, said these “benefits are a lifeline for many Americans who are retired or unable to work due to disability.” She said this rapidly growing criminal activity — known as “account takeovers” — “affects all Americans.”

The force behind the fraud: For the past four years, Florida has ranked No. 1 in the country for identity theft, according to complaints compiled by the Federal Trade Commission. South Florida’s ID-theft rate is twice that of the rest of the state.

Ferrer said stolen IDs are the “new crack cocaine” of offenders, who buy lists of stolen names, dates of birth and Social Security numbers from insiders at hospitals, medical offices and schools, among other places. Florida, Georgia and the District of Columbia have emerged as national hot spots for ID theft-related crimes, especially tax-refund fraud but also ripoffs of Social Security and other government benefits.

Among the latest tax-fraud cases: Johny Wold Jasmin, 32, of Boca Raton, and Carneisha Patrice Mitchell, 31, of Miami were charged in early November with using an electronic tax ID number issued by the Internal Revenue Service to file multiple false claims for about $1.4 million in tax refunds. According to the FBI, the defendants allegedly used the stolen identities of both living and deceased people — including the ID of a baby who died three days after birth. Jasmin and Michell have pleaded not guilty.

In 2010, IRS criminal investigators, working with local and federal authorities, began targeting tax-refund fraud, leading to more than 400 prosecutions in South Florida. But the agency’s own numbers show the crime remains very much a growth industry.

Nationwide, the IRS estimated it received 5 million returns with stolen identities, totaling $29.4 billion in fraudulent refund claims during the 2013 filing season, according to the latest Government Accountability Office report. Of that total, the agency estimated it paid 900,000 bad refunds totaling $5.2 billion.

FRAUD-BUSTING TIPS

Top ways to prevent ID fraud and deal with the IRS if you become a victim.

▪ Secure personal information in a safe in your home.

▪ ▪ Shred all personal financial papers.

▪ Be careful about what you throw in the trash.

▪ Be wary of sharing your Social Security number with anyone.

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