Posted on June 26th, 2013 No comments
After stealing the identities of several South Floridians — including a former owner of the New York Mets — Jeffrey Emil Groover made it seem like he was truly sorry for his crimes.
He even testified to a U.S. Senate committee while he was serving a federal prison term in 2004 and offered some helpful suggestions to lawmakers about how to stop people like him from victimizing others.
But on Thursday, Groover admitted that he again used other people’s identities to steal money by claiming the victims had signed over checks to him for pre-paid pest extermination and disinfection services.
Groover, 52, who recently was listed at addresses in West Palm Beach and in Broward County, had no comment after the brief hearing in federal court in Fort Lauderdale. He faces a maximum of 20 years in prison and up to $1 million in fines when he is sentenced in August.
Records show he was released from federal prison in 2006 after serving a four-year term for credit card fraud that involved stealing the identities of several people, including Nelson Doubleday, the wealthy Jupiter Island resident who formerly co-owned the Mets.
Groover went on a yearlong spending spree at the time on lines of credit he obtained under other people’s names. Doubleday tipped off authorities, and when they investigated further, they found Groover also had used Palm Beach philanthropist Donald Burns’ identity to buy a BMW, a Rolex watch and rare coins, according to court records.
Groover also was ordered to pay more than $270,000 in restitution.
While Groover was serving his prison term for those offenses, he addressed the U.S. Senate’s Special Committee on Aging in March 2004, telling senators that he had used the internet to obtain personal information about wealthy targets, open credit card accounts and even tap into his victims’ bank accounts.
“I came here to assist my country, and in some small way to find redemption for what I’ve done,” Groover testified to the committee. “I lost my home, my business, my freedom and most of all my wife and children for what I did. The punishment is severe, and rest assured that I will not do it again. However, that will not stop other people from continuing to do this type of crime due to the ease in which it can be done.”
He went on to outline his suggestions for curtailing such opportunities and apologized to his victims. He blamed the failure of a small internet service provider that he owned in the late 1990s for putting him in financial difficulty and said he resorted to fraud to keep his business going and support his family.
Groover’s more recent crimes came to light when a check-processing service noticed and reported suspicious activity in a merchant account he opened in March 2012. According to court records, Groover had set up a West Palm Beach-based corporation called Affordable Pest Protection Inc., which IRS criminal investigators and federal prosecutors said “purported to be a provider of pest extermination and disinfection services.”
Analysts at the check-processing service became suspicious of Groover’s transactions within days of him opening the account and they notified authorities. Groover had attempted to cash several U.S. Treasury tax refund checks, records show.
When the company asked him to explain the activity, Groover told them he had met with each of the people named on the tax refund checks and they had agreed to turn the proceeds of those checks over to his business.
“Groover further explained that he was trying to mimic automobile dealerships’ promotions by allowing clients to bring him their tax refund checks and apply the refund amounts to pre-paid pest control services,” agents wrote.
When agents tracked down the people identified on the checks, they found that none of them had filed the income tax returns or authorized anyone to use their information.
One of the victims was a man who had died in Broward County in April 2008, and other victims included an Oregon man and women from Tampa and Michigan, according to the criminal complaint.
Groover pleaded guilty Thursday to four counts of making and presenting false claims to the IRS. He reached a plea agreement after learning prosecutors planned to file more charges, including several counts of aggravated identity theft, against him, according to court filings.
Groover admitted he had targeted more than 10 victims and the intended loss was between $200,000 and $400,000, U.S. District Judge Robin Rosenbaum said in court.
Posted on June 26th, 2013 No comments
The arrest of Jerry Frank Townsend on Sept. 5, 1979 ended the hunt for a brutal serial killer and rapist who had terrorized a predominantly African-American neighborhood in northwest Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
But it began an enduring miscarriage of justice.
Townsend spent 22 years of his life in prison until he was exonerated by DNA tests that did not exist when he was arrested. Eddie Lee Mosley remained free to continue to rape and kill until his 1987 arrest and confinement in a state hospital for the criminally insane.
The deaths of 10 women and children who were murdered after Townsend’s wrongful arrest have been linked to Mosley by DNA testing or other evidence.
Now, relatives of three of those victims are calling on longtime Broward State Attorney Mike Satz – who is up for re-election – to finally investigate the actions of police detectives whose testimony convicted Townsend.
“It matters a hell of a lot,” said Clarice Tukes, 72, whose 20-year-old daughter, Arnette, was raped and strangled five months after Townsend’s arrest. “My daughter would still be alive if they hadn’t arrested the wrong man.”
“I want this reopened,” said Jacquelyn D. Miller, the daughter of Geraldine Barfield, whose body was found in a field adjacent to the Immanuel Church of God in Christ near Sunland Park on Dec. 19, 1983. She was 35.
“I’ve carried this with me 28 years. I want Michael Satz to tell me why he allowed this to happen, why a killer was allowed to remain on the streets,” she said.
Compared to Jack the Ripper
Satz was in his first term as Broward’s top prosecutor when Townsend was arrested.
The case captured the public’s imagination: A black serial killer compared by police to Jack the Ripper. Townsend, they said, had admitted to wanting to “rid the world of prostitutes.”
The victims, however, were not prostitutes.
Townsend, a grown man with the mental capacity of a child, was led by detectives to confess to a string of rapes and murders he did not do. He was convicted of six murders and a rape in 1980 and sent to prison for life.
In 2009, eight years after DNA proved his innocence, the Broward Sheriff’s Office agreed to pay $2 million over five years to settle a civil rights lawsuit alleging that its detectives fabricated evidence, concealed exculpatory evidence, tampered with witnesses and coerced false confessions out of Townsend.
Miami, where city detectives were accused of similar wrongdoing against Townsend, paid $2.2 million to end another suit before trial in 2008. Taxpayers spent at least $1 million more to pay lawyers to defend the police.
Broward Bulldog reported in 2009 that transcripts of Townsend’s Broward trial and hearings contain disturbing evidence of crimes like perjury and the falsification of police reports by BSO detectives and other officers. Several relatives recently saw the story.
For example, BSO detectives testified that Townsend led them to the scene of four Broward murders, and provided them with details only the killer would have known.
But Townsend wasn’t the killer. So the detectives’ damning testimony takes on new meaning.
There is no statute of limitations on perjury in an official proceeding that relates to the prosecution of a capital felony. Whether the law could be enforced regarding original police testimony against Townsend is unclear because today’s statute is somewhat different than what was on the books in the 1980s.
Nevertheless, neither Satz, Broward’s state attorney since 1976, nor the Broward Sheriff’s Office has investigated the actions of the BSO detectives whose testimony sent Townsend to prison, Mark Schlein and Anthony Fantigrassi.
The settled lawsuit contended those detectives framed Townsend to advance their careers. Schlein has declined to discuss the case. Fantigrassi has said he never lied to convict Townsend.
Fantigrassi retired as head of BSO’s Criminal Investigations Unit in 2005. Schlein retired in 1993 as a lieutenant colonel, later worked for the state and is today an attorney in private practice in Tallahassee.
The lawsuit said Mosley is believed to be responsible for 41 rapes and 17 murders between 1973 and 1987, when he was declared incompetent to stand trial for the 1983 Christmas Eve rape-murder of Emma Cook, 54.
Victims and their families Katrenna Bentley, a hedge fund accountant, was 11 years old the day her grandmother died. She still vividly recalls seeing her battered body on a slab at the Mizell Funeral Home.
“I remember her laying on the table and seeing skin under her nails and hair in her mouth. They said she fought back, bit him in the head,” Bentley said. DNA from that trace evidence was matched two decades later to Mosley.
Katrenna and her mother, Mary Bentley, Emma Cook’s daughter, both said they want the state to investigate the actions of the police who handled the Townsend case.
“Every Christmas I relive this and get a sick feeling in the bottom of my stomach,” said Mary Bentley, 61. “If they had investigated it properly from the beginning they could have caught Mosley earlier and he wouldn’t have ended up killing my mom or the other people. They should pay.”
“I would love to see that happen,” said Calvin Sapp, 68, a semi-retired construction worker and older brother of victim Geraldine Barfield. “It seems like very seldom that people of color get the type of justice that they give everybody else.”
The victims’ relatives are not alone in wanting an investigation.
Broward’s elected public defender, Howard Finkelstein, said, “The fact that these officers were allowed to lie and cheat to frame an innocent man, and then were allowed to go on with their lives as though they did nothing wrong and nothing happened is not only illegal, it’s a sin.”
Finkelstein said Townsend’s case is “the best example” of a local criminal justice system where authorities have for decades often ignored the crimes of police officers that plant evidence or commit perjury to make cases against suspects.
“That they turned a blind eye to such a heinous crime is the exact reason that most minorities in Broward feel they don’t get a fair shake – and they’re right,” said Finkelstein said.
Satz, who rarely talks to reporters, referred a request for comment to a subordinate who said prosecutors reviewed the Townsend case before the DNA tests were done and found insufficient evidence of perjury.
“In regards to the officers involved in that case, we know what it takes to charge someone with perjury,” said Assistant State Attorney Carolyn McCann. “People on the outside don’t know about the elements of the crime. They just think that if it smells bad and looks bad it’s a crime. In a perfect world, that would work. But we have to follow the law and can’t just harass people.”
Broward prosecutors, however, have made little effort to actually make such a case. Asked if her office ever confronted Fantigrassi or Schlein about their graphic testimony at Townsend’s trial, McCann said, “Not that I’m aware of.”
A study released in May by the National Registry of Exonerations showed that Broward accounted for nine of Florida’s 32 exonerations since 1989 – more than twice as many as any other county in the state. Most of those exonerated defendants were black.
Townsend, who lived in Hallandale Beach at the time of his arrest, is one of two Broward men cleared of murders now attributed to Mosley. Frank Lee Smith spent 14 years on Death Row for raping and killing 8-year-old Shandra Whitehead in her bed in 1985. He died of cancer on Jan.30, 2000, less than a year before DNA tests identified Mosley as the girl’s killer.
Three weeks before Townsend’s 1979 arrest, Fort Lauderdale police Det. Doug Evans identified Mosley – known around his northwest area neighborhood as “The Rape Man” – as the prime suspect in the rape-murders in his jurisdiction. Evans based his case on witness testimony and physical evidence, but the BSO detectives blew him off.
Evans later helped catch Mosley and free Townsend. Before his death in January 2011, Evans told the Broward Bulldog that he was disappointed authorities had never investigated police misconduct that had caused Townsend’s wrongful arrest and conviction.
Evans’ friend and colleague, ex-Fort Lauderdale Det. Roy Brown, said, “Doug always pushed for an investigation, always wanted one, but it’s been a hard rock. They let it sleep, they let it lay and they moved on and there’s no justice and nobody is held accountable for it. You’ve got to want to pursue them.
“The public should have a right to know this stuff: A serial killer running around killing people and nobody cared,” said Brown.
Clarice Tukes, whose daughter Arnette was murdered not long after Townsend’s arrest, was Doug Evans’ cousin.
“They knew who it was that did it. They knew Townsend didn’t do it, Mosley did. Doug told the whole family he did it. He said he didn’t know why they won’t take his word. That hurts,” said Tukes.
Her grandson, Dominick Richardson, was 3 years old when his mother died. He’s grown now, with three children of his own. His daughter Arnette is named in his mother’s honor, Tukes said.
Posted on June 25th, 2013 No comments
A fast-moving identity thief took only 45 minutes to charge more than $1,000 during a shopping spree, and now authorities want to quickly find the identity of the thief.
The Broward Sheriff’s Office Tuesday released surveillance video taken on March 15 at two Target Stores in Hollywood, where detectives say the man used a credit card that was mailed to a Pembroke Park address. He was also seen visiting a Wells Fargo bank the same day.
Investigators say the thief stole the identity information of a 52-year-old Miami Gardens resident in order to obtain the credit card.
The Sheriff’s Office asks anyone with information on the case to contact Detective Phillip Love at 954-964-0534 or Broward Crime Stoppers, anonymously, at 954-493-8477.
Posted on June 25th, 2013 No comments
It’s not only the glaring sun and the threat of dog bites that South Florida’s mail carriers must contend with as they go door to door delivering the mail — sometimes they come under physical attack from the people who live along their delivery routes. From criminals intent on committing identity fraud to customers with poor anger management skills, letter carriers say they have noticed an increase in such attacks in recent years.
“We have more brazen offenders approaching letter carriers and even threatening them or assaulting them,” said Ivan Ramirez, a U.S. Postal Inspector in Miramar. “A lot of people don’t realize that if you mess with a federal employee, then it’s a federal crime and you could do some serious prison time.”
Among the cases prosecuted in federal court in recent years were a father and son from Oakland Park, Donald and Kevin Lincks, now 64 and 31, who were sentenced to a year in prison for beating a postal worker in June 2009 after he refused to give them their mail on the street because he didn’t know them.
A Palm Beach County man, David Jason Agosto, 36, is serving 8 1/2 years in federal prison for assaulting a postal worker who he believed was flirting with his girlfriend while delivering mail at her workplace, the state Department of Children & Families in Lake Worth in 2008.
And three men are serving lengthy federal prison terms for their roles in the December 2010 murder of postal worker Bruce Parton, 60, of Pembroke Pines, who was shot while being robbed of a master key in north Miami-Dade.
The U.S. Postal Service said it does not keep statistics on such crimes, but trains workers on how to stay safe and pursues criminal charges against offenders.
Assaulting postal employees can have serious consequences — it is a federal crime that is prosecuted under the same law as assaulting an FBI agent. Attacking a federal employee while they’re carrying out their duties carries punishments that range from one to 20 years in prison.
Ramirez said the downturn in the economy and the prevalence of identity thieves, who sometimes target letter carriers because they want to rob master keys that open community mailboxes, have coincided with more attacks on carriers.
Court records show that at least seven people have faced federal prosecution for assaulting and injuring letter carriers in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties since 2008. Those numbers don’t tell the whole story, officials said, because assailants are also prosecuted for related crimes, like fraud or robbery, and can also face state charges.
In federal court in West Palm Beach last week, U.S. Magistrate Judge Dave Lee Brannon praised prosecutors for their evenhanded approach to a complicated case involving a mentally ill woman who investigators said attacked a letter carrier delivering mail in Lantana in September.
Mailman Bruce Tabano, 60, suffered a concussion, chipped tooth and facial cuts when Donna Rose Angelo, 49, attacked him at his work truck near North Ridge Drive and Flamingo Drive, according to the complaint.
Tabano told investigators Angelo told him to give her the mail, punched him in the face, then came at him again in an aggressive manner.
“The carrier then reached for his dog spray and heard the woman say ‘If you spray me, I’ll f—ing kill you, I’m crazy,'” postal inspectors wrote.
Angelo, who has a history of violent disturbances, told police that she did not understand when they read her legal rights to her, tried to run off and said she didn’t mean to hit the mailman, investigators said.
Her diagnosis was not made public, but her lawyer said Angelo would pursue an insanity defense if formal charges are filed. Experts said she is mentally incompetent and she has spent the past few months being treated in a federal medical prison in Texas.
Prosecutor John McMillan told the judge Wednesday that efforts to restore her to competency have failed. Brannon ordered that she be assessed to see if she poses a danger to the community before deciding what to do next.
“These are not easy cases, these are not easy issues,” Brannon said, adding that he felt prosecutors were looking out for the best interests of the victim, suspect and community.
Mike Gill, the president of Branch 1071 of the National Association of Letter Carriers which represents workers in Miami-Dade, southern Palm Beach and most of Broward, said his members have reported an increase in assaults, though not a dramatic one. Gill said he thinks some of it is linked to the rise in identity theft.
“It’s definitely been more of an issue in recent years and we warn our members that if something doesn’t feel right, they should get out of the area and involve their supervisor and the police,” he said.
Just as mail carriers look out for their customers, alerting authorities when they notice something suspicious, Gill said he hopes people in the community look out for the safety of postal service employees. “Letter carriers are out there six days a week, and we try to be the eyes and ears for the community.”
Ramirez, the postal inspector who investigates crimes, said the postal service has increased its investigative efforts in recent years and introduced programs to make sure employees are looking out for their personal safety.
Debbie Fetterly, a U.S. Postal Service spokeswoman in South Florida, said employee safety is a priority.
“USPS always tells employees that they are our most valuable resource and that we want to deliver them home safely each day,” Fetterly said. Safeguards include special training and awareness programs as well as having a threat assessment team that evaluates and takes action on serious threats made to employees, she said.
Posted on May 2nd, 2013 No comments
POMPANO BEACH — A would-be robber shot to death by his intended victim this week was a Miami man with a lengthy criminal history, the Broward Sheriff’s Office said Wednesday.
A resident of Conch Key Villas in Pompano Beach had arrived home just before 5:15 a.m. Tuesday when he encountered Osner Louis, 29, near his garage, the Sheriff’s Office said. The gun went off during a struggle, killing Louis, the agency said.
Louis had been arrested dozens of times since 1999, and served several prison stints, including in 2007 for aggravated assault, state records show. Prior cases in which he pleaded guilty or was convicted included grand theft in 2003, larceny and battery in 2001 and cocaine possession in 2000.
In a telephone interview, Nathan May, 29, told the Sun Sentinel he was the resident involved in Tuesday’s shooting. May called the shooting self-defense.
Posted on May 1st, 2013 No comments
Authorities in Central Florida suspect three Broward County men of being part of an infamous “felony lane gang,” one or more groups of South Floridians who travel far from home to commit car burglaries, bank fraud and identity thefts.
Ench Smith, 33, and Guercy Smith, 26, both of Pompano Beach, and Traver Paul, 19, of Fort Lauderdale, are among the latest suspects accused of such schemes across Florida and the rest of the country.
The trio was more than 220 miles north of Broward on Tuesday, when police in Casselberry arrested them each on charges of burglary, criminal mischief and petty theft. Patrons at an LA Fitness in Casselberry, northeast of Orlando, reported their vehicles were burglarized, and police said they caught the suspects as they drove away.
The men were in a rental car, and their actions were similar to those committed by other suspected felony lane gang members, Casselberry Police Capt. David Del Rosso said. Police said they are not sure if the men are members of an elaborate crime ring or merely a group of petty criminals who adopted the scheme for a quick and easy score.
“It could be something they learned to do in jail, or they are a spinoff of other groups,” Del Rosso said. “Bottom line is they were doing the same type of crimes associated with a felony lane gang.”
Even though “felony lane gang” suggests one group, it actually is more than one ring of thieves carrying out such crimes, officials said. While gang cells may not be working together, their schemes usually take on similar patterns.
In most cases, those arrested have South Florida addresses and travel in rental cars. They target cars parked at state parks, day care centers, gyms, supermarkets and cemeteries. Their loot usually includes wallets or purses containing credit and debit cards and checkbooks.
The thieves later drive to the victims’ banks to cash stolen checks, often wearing wigs and sunglasses for disguises. They often use the farthest drive-through teller lanes to avoid surveillance cameras. Thus the term “felony lane.”
In Broward, Ench Smith has primarily dealt with traffic offenses. His short prior criminal history excludes any arrests consistent with being part of a large-scale organized crime group, records show.
His alleged accomplices have a more serious criminal history, records show.
Since 2008, Guercy Smith has pleaded no-contest and been sentenced to probation on several charges, including aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and drug possession, state records show.
Paul was most recently arrested in Miami-Dade County on March 22 on charges of fleeing police and reckless driving. He is awaiting trial in that case. Since 2008, he has pleaded no-contest and been sentenced to probation on several offenses, including firing a gun into an occupied dwelling and battery.
Authorities say those involved in felony lane-type crimes have distinct roles, and the crimes often are aimed at stealing victims’ identities. Some act as organizers and recruit other members, some conduct robberies to obtain identification documents, and others go to banks to cash fraudulent checks.
In recent months, federal officials say they have made some progress in cracking down on felony lane suspects from South Florida.
In December, a grand jury in Pennsylvania returned a four-count indictment, charging 10 people with conspiracy to commit fraud, bank fraud, wire fraud and aggravated identity theft. With the exception of a Texas woman, all the alleged group members reportedly were from Broward.
In that case, federal officials said group members committed crimes in Pennsylvania from August to October 2012. During that time, they allegedly broke into numerous vehicles and stole the identities of more than 100 people.
The “smash and grabs” occurred at about 25 state parks and recreation centers in and around the Middle District of Pennsylvania.
Heidi Havens, a spokeswoman for federal prosecutors in Pennsylvania, said the cases are expected to go to trial next month.
Posted on April 16th, 2013 No comments
On the same summer day that an Indiana scalper sold a $1,000 pair of counterfeit Miami Heat playoff tickets to a Coral Springs man, he was arrested at AmericanAirlines Arena for selling fake $600 tickets to undercover Miami-Dade detectives, authorities say. Tony McKibben, 44, extradited from the Hoosier State, was in Broward County court Monday morning to answer to the resulting grand theft charge.
Posted on April 9th, 2013 No comments
MIAMI (CBS4) – With the April 15th tax deadline less than two weeks away, hundreds of thousands of taxpayers are still waiting for last years’ refunds.
So what’s the problem?
South Florida is ground zero for the worst tax refund identity theft rate in the country.
Ways To Protect Yourself From Identity Theft
CBS4 Chief Consumer Reporter Al Sunshine found there is some new help for victims to finally get their money back from Uncle Sam.
Laurie King said she was worried about filing her 2012 tax return after someone filed a fraudulent tax return using her name last year.
“There’s not one person that I’ve talked to that hasn’t been touched by it or knows somebody who’s been touched by it,” said King.
It took almost a year for the South Miami-Dade waitress to get her money back from the IRS after the scammers stole her refund. She said she really needed that check to help pay some bills.
“Finally, 50 weeks, almost a full year. I think it’s preposterous. I really don’t think it should have taken that long,” said King.
It turns out King was not the only one on the waiting list. The IRS recently revealed it had a backlog of about 300,000 identity theft victims still waiting for their refunds.
What To Do If Your Identity Was Stolen
Pembroke Pines teacher Joan Rubenstein was scammed twice – in 2010 and 2011.
“I was in more shock because they said they were going to red flag it and it shouldn’t happen again and it did,” said Rubenstein.
Like Laurie King, the IRS delayed sending out Rubenstein’s legitimate refund for almost a year.
What would she like to tell the taxman?
“I would like to tell them that it’s horrible that it’s happening. It’s our money, they’re paying out twice. People don’t have the money to throw away like that and they need to figure out a way to make it better,” said Rubenstein.
Broward financial planner Ron Myers believes the blame for this latest nationwide scam and delays in returning victims’ refunds was triggered by Congress itself.
“You’re seeing people with anywhere from a 6 to a 14-15 month wait for a refund,” added Myers.
“In your opinion has Congress made it too easy for criminals to scam the IRS and scam taxpayers,” asked Sunshine.
“Clearly. Clearly without question,” replied Myers. “I think the Congress is eager to get people their refunds. The IRS has in many cases antiquated systems. The IRS has not caught up with the electronic age, they’re trying.”
“And as a result what are we seeing,” asked Sunshine.
“We are seeing a tremendous amount of fraud to the tune of billions of dollars,” said Myers.
U.S. Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz doesn’t think Congress caused the problem. She’s just introduced new legislation which would increase penalties for anyone filing a false taz return. The measure, however, doesn’t include requiring the IRS to speed up getting refunds back to victims like King and Rubenstein.
“Getting the refunds back is important, but what’s more important is stopping the crime,” said Wasserman Schultz. “I’ve filed legislation called the Stop Taxpayer Identity Theft Act which would increase the penalties on criminals who steal taxpayer identities and make it significant easier for them to get caught committing those crimes.”
With Wasserman Schultz’s help, Rubenstein was finally able to get her refund back and a get a special security code from the IRS to prevent future thefts.
After CBS 4 contacted Senator Bill Nelson about King’s problem, his office was finally able to get the IRS to speed up her case and finally process her refund.
“You did fantastic, I’m relieved, I can breath again. I don’t have to worry about this, it’s done, it’s taken care of,” said King.
If you’ve been the victim of identity theft and are still waiting for last years’ refund, you should contact your representatives in Washington D.C. to see if they can help speed up the process with the IRS.
You also need to file an identity theft affidavit with the IRS and FTC, and contact the national credit bureaus to put a fraud warning on your account.
Posted on March 18th, 2013 No comments
Pictures taken in February and March of 2012 show Alci Bonannee and Chante Mozley, two convicted identity thieves, withdrawing cash from several banks in Broward County.
The federal government says the money came from stolen tax refunds that belonged to people like Miami resident Joseph Szot.
“When I filed a return, the accountant told me you can’t file because somebody filed already,” Szot said.
And just how did Bonannee and Mozley get Szot’s tax refund? Federal authorities said it happened while he was a patient at South Miami Hospital.
The pair is accused of paying respiratory therapist Betty Cole for patients’ personal information including their social security number. Internal Revenue Service Special Agent in Charge of the Miami office Tony Gonzalez said: “The bad guys that are able to get these social security numbers are buying them from employees that work at these hospitals and these medical centers which are sold up to $150 each.”
The breach at South Miami Hospital happened between June of 2011 and February 2012 and affected 834 patients.
In a statement, Baptist Health which operates South Miami Hospital, said “the employee was terminated, and efforts are underway to prosecute this individual to the fullest extent possible.”
The south Miami case is the latest hospital ID theft to surface in South Florida. Since 2009, the Department of Health and Human Services has received reports that hundreds of thousands of patients have been affected by breaches at hospitals across South Florida. The hospitals with the largest breaches include Memorial Healthcare System with 111,650 patients affected, the University of Miami Health System with 66,065 people, Mount Sinai Medical Center with 2,600 patients and Jackson Health System with 2,062 patients.
Although many hospitals have had more breaches, a federal act called HITECH only requires that medical centers report breaches that affect more than 500 patients. Gonzalez said they’ve seen a case where “gentleman who provided a service of taking elders home after being seen at a hospital, would cut their little tabs off their wristbands and with the patient number, walk into the hospital, look at the computer and get a social security number without ever being an employee of that hospital.”
In April of last year, Memorial Healthcare System in Hollywood notified about 9,500 patients that two employees were fired because they may have inappropriately accessed their personal information with the intent to process fraudulent tax returns. In a statement, Memorial said it “continues to enhance its security controls and monitoring systems, limit user access in all physicians’ offices, and has reinforced the importance of the privacy and confidentiality of patients’ information with its staff and affiliated physicians’ employees.”
Last year, Jackson North had a breach that affected over 500 patients. Ed O’Dell, the spokesperson for Jackson Health system says in that case it “was a volunteer in a patient care area and he was apparently taking pictures of patient information.”
Since then, Jackson has implemented new rules for volunteers prohibiting them from using smartphones in patient areas. Linda Quick, President of the South Florida Hospital and Healthcare Association, a trade association, said the industry is not immune to breaches. She told NBC 6: “proportionate to the number of people who are seen in our member institutions, it’s not pervasive in any way.”
Szot doesn’t blame South Miami Hospital. He said he believes companies in general should find a way to reduce the risk of security breaches.
“I think corporations use Social Security numbers too much for identifying you, putting the information out to too many people,” he said.
The IRS said hospitals have been cooperating with them to combat identity theft, a growing crime.
So how can you avoid becoming a victim at a hospital?
“You do not have to provide your Social Security number, but you do have to provide enough information for you to be distinguishable from other people,” Quick said.
A hospital may still require your social security number to verify coverage if your insurance provider only identifies you that way, but experts say you should ask questions before handing your number over.
“You don’t always have to give it. If they ask for it, make sure that there’s a valid reason to receive it, but it doesn’t often have to be given,” Postal Inspector Blanca Alvarez said.
The IRS says identity theft affects many industries, not just hospitals. According to HHS reports, health insurance companies have had breaches affecting millions of Floridians.
Posted on September 27th, 2012 No comments
As identity theft has skyrocketed in the last five years, more South Floridians are being plunged into the aggravating and painfully slow process of proving they exist after thieves steal their identity.
From thieves installing ATM skimmer devices at Publix Supermarkets to those filing fraudulent tax returns in someone else’s name, identity theft has left many South Florida victims in financial limbo. College students can’t get financial aid. Some people can’t close on homes they were scheduled to buy. Others can’t get new credit cards. Thousands have had to wait more than a year for federal tax refunds they were counting on to pay bills.
Identity theft affects South Florida’s young and old — from babies’ newly issued Social Security numbers being filched to thieves stealing identities from the graves of the deceased.
Even law enforcement officers haven’t escaped. Davie Police Capt. Dale Engle, has been waiting seven months for his federal tax refund check, since a thief filed for one in his name — just five days before Engle tried to submit his own. “It’s a huge problem,” Engle said.
Such is the reality in South Florida, where the dramatic jump in reported incidents to the Federal Trade Commission — from 8,317 cases in 2007 to 17,668 in 2011 — has made us the identity theft capital of the nation. More identity thefts per capita occur here than in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago or any other large urban area of the country.
Last year saw the number of identity thefts explode, with claims jumping 76 percent in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties. South Florida reports increased from 184 per 100,000 population in 2010 to 324 per 100,000 population in 2011, according to the FTC.
For Richard Zadanoff, 77, having his identity hijacked meant his plans to move from a home to a condo were upended. The Tamarac man discovered the problem earlier this year during tax season, but he couldn’t close on the condo because the bank found records of someone else’s claim to be him at a different address.
Zadanoff stood in line for hours at the Internal Revenue Service office in Plantation to report that his identity had been stolen — only to be turned away because so many others were ahead of him. He finally got an IRS office in Virginia to take his information by phone.
Victims of tax-related identity theft are required to file affidavits with the IRS and report the case to local police. Some departments have balked because they figure the federal government will investigate, said Cindy A. Liebes, the FTC’s Southeast regional director. But sometimes victims can’t get credit agencies to list the identity theft in their files unless there is a police report, she said.
The FTC also recommends that victims report the crime to the Social Security Administration.
Carol Flynn, of Davie, said the IRS didn’t tell her to report her tax-related identity theft to local police, the FTC, the SSA and the credit reporting agencies. She’s still waiting to hear about her refund, but said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson’s staff directed her to a taxpayer advocate who is updating her about her case.
At times, state and local agencies also have inadvertently put personal information online.
Bruce Hogman, a senior computer systems consultant who lives in Fort Lauderdale, was upset when he learned that Broward County had published some of his personal information online.
“My Social Security number was on the web for five years before a neighbor told me,” he said.
Broward County promptly removed his number after he alerted them, Hogman said.
Still, he fears others may be exposed to identity theft because some of their personal information may remain online in public documents such as deeds.
Lyz DeMarco, of Hollywood, couldn’t believe it when the IRS rejected a tax return because a thief had claimed her identity first; she had already been a victim twice before.
Once, someone tried to buy surfboards in Texas with her stolen credit card number. “It was a crazy amount of surfboards,” she said. Another time someone tried to use her debit card at a sports bar. “They must have made a counterfeit one,” she said. “I had mine with me.”
DeMarco said she encountered hurdles when she tried to report the crime, with police telling her they didn’t take IRS cases. On a third try, police took a report. The IRS required her to submit an “identity theft affidavit” to prove who she was. She spent hours on the telephone with different IRS staffers before her theft claim was finally accepted.
Despite the ordeal, which lasted half a year, DeMarco considers herself lucky. She called the IRS on Wednesday, and after she was on hold for an hour, this time there was good news.
Her refund was being wired into her bank account — with $50 in interest.
“I was floored — I was absolutely floored,” DeMarco said.