State legislators say they are determined to change the law to make it easier to crack down on tax refund fraud.
Responding to a joint investigation by The Tampa Tribune and News Channel 8, local lawmakers of both parties and legislative chambers said they hope to introduce measures during the next session to change the Florida identity theft law and give authorities the tools they need to bring thieves to justice.
Law enforcement officials say they are frustrated because nearly every day they find suspects carrying ledgers full of hundreds of people's personal information, including Social Security numbers and dates of birth, as well as preloaded debit cards in someone else's name. Even though they have strong reason to think the suspects are using the information to file fraudulent returns, they have to let them go free.
That's because, according to the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office, Florida's identity theft law makes it hard to prosecute unless there is direct evidence, such as video surveillance, proving the suspects used the identities to get cash.
Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor welcomes the legislators' efforts to change that.
The suspects, the chief said in an email, "have no legal reason to have ledgers full of people's names, Social Security numbers and dates of birth. They are up to no good with that type of information. It's extremely frustrating for officers as they run into suspect after suspect with these ledgers, but can do nothing about it.
"We are extremely pleased to have the local delegation taking steps to protect these innocent victims. That's true leadership. By expanding the identity theft statutes we can begin to stem the tide of tax fraud."
Hillsborough Sheriff's Cpl. Bruce Crumpler echoed her sentiments.
"We need some tools in our bag to be able to put these people in jail that have this information," Crumpler said. "We're not interested in putting innocent people in jail, like CPAs, who have a reasonable and corroborated explanation for carrying identifying information. We're fine and we're good with that."
While tax fraud is a federal crime, federal law enforcement doesn't have resources to prosecute pervasive street crime. Local officials have tried — with limited success — to bring state charges of identity theft.
Even if state lawmakers act quickly, however, the state Legislature doesn't begin its next session until March of next year — right in the middle of tax-filing season.
In the meantime, authorities estimate that Tampa area street criminals are stealing hundreds of millions a year from federal taxpayers.
The challenge for Florida lawmakers will be to relax the state law's requirement that fraudulent intent be proved while allowing exceptions for those who have legitimate reasons for possessing other people's personal information. The idea is to make it so a drug dealer with a backpack full of ledgers can be prosecuted, for example, while a medical assistant moving files between offices would be safe.
"If I can find the right language, I would introduce a bill to take care of this problem," Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, told the Tribune and News Channel 8.
Young thinks such a law would pass the Legislature easily.
"I think if I file a bill that is carefully crafted and narrowly tailored to solve the problem, that we can get unanimous buy-in in the House and Senate," she said.
On the other side of the aisle, Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, said she plans to co-sponsor a bill being drafted by Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, to address the issue.
Joyner said she wants to make a change because the current situation is "infringing on people's rights to be safe from having their personal identification open for the world to utilize for ulterior purposes ... We've seen what happens when we don't prevent this from happening."
She said she has talked to experts for advice on how to proceed.
"It's got to be looked at from all views, all sides — prosecution, defense, law enforcement — in order to come up with something that can pass muster," she said.
Cruz hopes to conduct a meeting involving police, prosecutors and legislators, including U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, to explore what's needed.
Rep. Rachel Burgin, R-Riverview, said in an email that she, too, hopes changes are made.
"It is clear that our state and federal personal identity laws need to be tightened and justice be levied upon these criminals," she wrote. "Anyone dishonestly possessing Floridians' personal information is doing so unlawfully and should be punished accordingly."
Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said he agrees.
"It angered me to know that people, unscrupulous characters like these individuals that were caught, unfortunately not prosecuted, that they were able to get away with it," Fasano said. "We want to protect people's identity, and when we find that someone has their identity without their permission, they should be charged with a crime."