By Christopher Zoukis
Corrections officials tend to have a single-track mindset: guards oversee prisoners in an attempt to maintain security and order. But what if the looking glass needs to be reversed and the jailers need to be overseen instead? With identity theft perpetrated by prison and jail employees on the rise, that option needs to be seriously considered.
But who would want to steal the identity of a prisoner? Unfortunately, for all the drawbacks that come with being incarcerated, prisoners’ limited ability to access their credit rating – or to otherwise protect their personal information or become aware of identity theft – makes them an attractive target. All identity thieves need are names matched with valid Social Security numbers and other personal data – particularly when filing fraudulent income tax returns, since most prisoners don’t file tax returns anyway.
According to a 2014 report by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, while in 2009 there were only 37,000 false tax returns filed using prisoners’ Social Security numbers, in 2012 the number reached 137,000. Many of the tax returns were filed by prisoners attempting to run scams, or by accomplices with the prisoners’ knowledge and consent. [See: PLN, Dec. 2014, p.46; Aug. 2011, p.10; Feb. 2011, p.18; May 2007, p.22]. Others, however, involved identity theft.
“Frequently, inmates are also victims of identity theft, which can lead to an overstatement of fraudulent returns filed by prisoners,” stated Debra Holland, commissioner of the wage and investment division for the IRS, according to The Washington Times.
Ironically, it turns out that many of the identity thieves who prey on prisoners are corrections employees with easy access to prisoners’ personal information.
The perpetrators of such crimes range from prison and jail guards to administrative clerks who have access to prisoners’ files. In one case, court records indicated that every Alabama Department of Corrections employee – about 3,000 people – had full access to such records, regardless of their job duties, before security protocols were put in place.
Cases of identity theft involving prisoners are fairly straightforward: A jail or prison official either accesses databases or steals booking sheets to obtain prisoners’ names, dates of birth and Social Security numbers. Sometimes such databases have information not only on current prisoners, but also those who have been incarcerated previously. Once the information is obtained, identity thieves either file fraudulent tax returns claiming refunds or give the data to someone else to do it for them. The funds are then directed to bank accounts or debit cards in the prisoners’ names, which were opened without their knowledge for the purpose of receiving illicit tax refunds.
The corrections systems that employ those who engage in prisoner identity theft represent a panoply of agencies, ranging from prisons and jails to parole offices and juvenile detention facilities.
As previously reported in PLN, Corey A. Coley, Sr., a former Florida juvenile probation officer, was convicted of conspiracy, aggravated identity theft and wire fraud for stealing the personal information of 90 current and past juvenile offenders who were on probation. He was sentenced in April 2014 to seven years and three months in federal prison, and ordered to repay $671,022.99. [See: PLN, April 2015, p.63].
In 2014, Jerry St. Fleur, 26, a former prison guard at the Zephyrhills Correctional Institution in Florida, was convicted of wire fraud and aggravated identity theft for stealing prisoners’ personal information from an electronic database and filing 182 fraudulent tax returns. He was sentenced to 51 months in federal prison in October 2014, and ordered to forfeit $61,704.
In August 2015, Marcus Lowe, 32, an employee of the Parole Services Division in Manatee County, Florida, was sentenced to three years in federal prison for his role in a scheme in which he and two accomplices used prisoners’ stolen identities to fraudulently claim more than $72,000 in tax refunds. According to a press release issued by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Lowe had access to booking sheets at the Manatee County jail, which “contained personal identification information relating to the inmates, including their names, dates of birth and Social Security numbers.”
Marc A. Bell, 49, was sentenced in May 2016 to four years in federal prison, three years of supervised release and restitution of $1.97 million to the IRS. Bell, a former employee of the District of Columbia’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, pleaded guilty to his role in an identity theft and tax fraud ring.
From May 2010 through April 2013, Bell stole the personal identifying information of approximately 645 juveniles who were detained or previously had been detained. He provided the information to other participants in the scheme, who used it to file approximately 1,160 federal income tax returns seeking more than $4.4 million in refunds. Of that amount, the IRS paid out $2,422,211. In addition to prisoners, the fraudulent scheme used personal information stolen from drug addicts, the elderly and people in assisted living facilities. Around 20 other people have pleaded guilty to charges in connection with the scheme.
Additionally, two former Alabama prison guards were sentenced to federal prison after being convicted of conspiring to defraud the United States in a massive tax scam. They were also charged with aggravated identity theft and wire fraud.
Bryant Thompson, a former shift clerk with the Alabama Department of Corrections, was sentenced on June 3, 2014 to a 120-month prison term. His former co-worker, Quincy Walton, was sentenced to 84 months. They were convicted of using their access to DOC databases to file over 180 false tax returns using the identities of state prisoners. They then directed refunds to prepaid debit cards and U.S. Treasury checks; many of the checks were cashed at a retail store owned by Walton’s uncle. Thompson was accused of using the fraudulent tax refunds to purchase a new paint job and rims for his SUV. He also bought a BMW.
According to a June 2015 news report, Shannon A. Brumfield, a guard at the Hinds County Adult Detention Center in Mississippi, stole the personal identifying information of 11 prisoners and used them to file false tax returns in 2011 and 2012. She was charged with mail fraud and aggravated identity theft, and her case remains pending.
A former employee at the John E. Goode Pre-Trial Detention Facility in Jacksonville, Florida, Harold B. Walbey III, 46, was charged with using the personal information of 49 prisoners, including their Social Security numbers, to request fraudulent income tax refunds. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 51 months in federal prison plus 3 years of supervised release and $110,756 in restitution on June 15, 2015. The district court applied a “vulnerable victim” sentencing enhancement because he had targeted prisoners. Walbey appealed the enhancement, which was affirmed by the 11th Circuit in December 2015. See: United States v. Walbey, 634 Fed.Appx. 767 (11th Cir. 2015).
Another Florida jailer, Lori Ann Dilworth, worked with two accomplices, Shantrell Stephenson and Richard Mitchell, to steal prisoners’ personal information and file false tax returns between 2010 and 2013. The IRS paid them over $200,000 for the fraudulent claims. Dilworth was sentenced in November 2015 to 25 months in federal prison plus two years of supervised release, and ordered to pay $52,105 in restitution.
Miami Dade County jail guard Cornelius Crumity, 39, was sentenced in April 2015 to three years in prison and one year of supervised release for participating in a scheme involving false tax returns. Crumity, who had pleaded guilty to aggravated identity theft and mail fraud, admitted to stealing personal identifying information from at least 50 prisoners and receiving around $356,000 in fraudulent refunds.
“Few crimes cause greater harm to society than law enforcement corruption,” stated Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Hayes. “These ill effects are compounded when committed in a correctional institution, sending a message to inmates that directly contradicts the government’s goals of rehabilitation and reform.”
Of course not only prison and jail employees target prisoners for identity theft. For example, Kelly Sims, the wife of an Ohio prisoner, was charged in May 2015 with using prisoners’ stolen identities to file fraudulent tax returns; at the time, her husband, Roma L. Sims, was serving a prison sentence for identity theft and tax fraud. Recorded prison phone calls between the pair were part of the investigation that resulted in federal charges. Kelly Sims was sentenced to 24 months in prison and three years of supervised release on March 16, 2016. Her husband was charged with related tax fraud offenses in September 2016, which remain pending.
While corrections employees breaking the law is nothing new, identity theft involving prisoners has reached alarming proportions. According to Local Initiatives Support Corp., an organization that helps ex-offenders with job training and financial coaching, in 2014 more than 20% of their 7,000 clients had inconsistencies in their credit reports, many of which were related to identity theft.
As reported by the Wall Street Journal, after Alexis Roldan was released from a Rhode Island prison in 2011, he learned that his credit report “revealed several thousand dollars in unpaid medical, energy and insurance bills” due to identity theft. “They got me pretty good,” said Roldan, who was unable to purchase a car or insurance, or find housing due to the debts recorded on his credit report.
With the deck already stacked against prisoners following their release from prison or jail, barriers such as debt and bad credit ratings caused by identity theft can almost ensure their re-incarceration. Fortunately, recognizing the serious nature of prisoner identity theft, courts are holding the perpetrators accountable – giving them more than mere slaps on the wrists, as is often the case when prison and jail employees engage in misconduct.
Sources: www.tbo.com, www.wsj.com, www.tampabay.com, www.criminal-justice-online.blogspot.com, www.ajc.com, www.maysville-online.com, www.esecurityplanet.com, www.wfxg.com, www.heraldtribune.com, www.idtheftresolutions.org, www.justice.gov, www.bradenton.com, www.fusion.net, New York Daily News, www.lifelock.com, Washington Times, www.fbi.gov
This article originally appeared in Prison Legal News on December 8, 2016.