Action 9

‘He had $500,000 cash’: FBI says more common criminals now turning to cybercrime

ORLANDO, Fla. — A massive global investigation that started in central Florida could mark a major shift in how criminals operate.  Federal investigators say violent criminals that once focused on drugs and robberies are now turning to cybercrimes to targeting consumers and businesses.

A federal case that sparked off a tip from an Orlando tax firm serves as one of the first examples of this trend that investigators have seen.  Evidence photos in the case show stacks of cash and a glamourous lifestyle for those involved.

“They were driving, Bentleys, Rolls-Royces, going to clubs. They were good friends with NFL players,” said Special Agent Judah Pent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Will Hamilton who helped prosecute the case said, “I’ve never seen a case of this level of sophistication before.”

Twelve people were indicted as part of the criminal conspiracy that federal investigators say lasted at least four years and involved millions of dollars.

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Special Agent Pent told Action 9, “We did a search warrant at one of the individuals house and we see he had $500,000 cash in a safe.”

He said what makes this case so unique is that many of people involved had a history of street crimes, but instead of that kind of operation this case involved cyber intrusions into computer systems across the country. The crooks were targeting tax prep offices, including one in Orlando.

“All of us would think, okay, to be able to do computer intrusions, you need to be a nerd, a hacker,” said Pent.

But he pointed out, these days that’s not the case.  It’s now easier than ever for criminals to commit cybercrimes even without traditional computer programing or coding skills.  And Pent says the street gangs are now starting to realize there’s big money and less risk involved with computer crimes.

In this case, the criminals went to the Dark Web and learned how to purchase credentials to get into the tax office systems.  Once they got in the those systems, they stole the tax histories and personal information from thousands of people. They then filed false tax returns in the victims’ names before they could file themselves.  That meant the Internal Revenue Service was sending some of the claimed returns to the bad guys instead of the real tax payers.

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“And the sheer breadth of 9000 false tax returns and $45-million in claimed refunds is just staggering,” said Tara Reed, Assistant Special Agent-in-Charge with the IRS  field office in Tampa.  She said the crooks even opened fake tax offices using stolen personal information to make it easier to file more bogus returns.

Reed said, “The impact was substantial for both the taxpayers who now have to file identity theft  affidavits and worry about how to get their corrected tax return to reflect on their tax system.  But it’s also pretty profound on the CPA firms.”

In all, the crooks collected around $7-million of the $45-million they tried to claim with the bogus tax filings.  Some of the suspects were captured on ATM surveillance withdrawing the cash.

Investigators are seeing this trend of criminals trying to hide behind a keyboard pickup steam and they expect it will continue.

Special Agent Pent said, “One of the first email monikers that we came across in this case was NO FACE NO CASE 2017.”

That’s why he believes it’s now more important than ever for small businesses and even people at home to make sure their networking systems are secure.

The FBI and IRS worked closely with prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office to prove who was behind the keyboards and other aspects of this online conspiracy in order to bring them to justice.

“It was critical to proving this case at trial and to ultimately tying the entire members of the R.I.C.O. enterprise to one another,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Will Hamilton.

In this case, all twelve defendants were convicted and sentenced to prison time.

If you fall victim to a cybercrime, it’s important to report it to your local law enforcement agency and the FBI right away.  You can file the federal report at the Internet Crime Complaint Center: Internet Crime Complaint Center(IC3) | File a Complaint

Jeff Deal

Jeff Deal,

I joined the Eyewitness News team as a reporter in 2006.