WINTER HAVEN, Fla. - During tax season, most people scramble to gather their W-2s and receipts, while some look for any last minute deductions they may have overlooked. But most want to make sure they file their tax returns correctly and on time.
So how is that so many people are stealing other people's identities and filing fake income tax returns, easily getting back thousands of dollars seemingly unchecked?
That's the question Sheriff Grady Judd of the Polk County Sheriff's Office says he's frustrated over after his deputies arrested 19 suspects for creating 399 fake identities that totaled nearly half a million dollars in fraudulent tax returns.
Mug Shot Gallery: Polk tax fraud arrests
Polk detectives say in many of the cases the suspects would steal names, Social Security numbers, and birthdays from nursing homes. Then they file fake tax returns, making up the financial information to receive the highest amount possible.
Sheriff Judd says 83 identities were stolen recently from residents of the Brandywyne Health Care Center at 1801 Lake Miriam Drive in Winter Haven. He says nearly $88,000 in fake tax returns were a result of those seniors' information.
10 News called the facility and stopped by their offices to speak to authorities there, but were told the administrator had gone home for the day.
A sign out front of the Brandywyne Health Care Center promises "peace of mind," but Cathy McClain of Winter Haven and Farrah Legrand are both accused of taking away that peace of mind by allegedly swiping personal information from unsuspecting patients, while McClain and Legrand worked as certified nursing assistants.
Judd says, "They've got an elaborate scheme figured out and the IRS is just dropping the money on them, just hand over fist."
McClain worked at Brandywyne Health Care Center. Legrand worked at Groves Nursing Home in Lake Wales. The alleged victims may have trusted them.
Judd says of the victims, "They don't have the wherewithal to deal with this because they're typically very old, physically or mentally challenged. To straighten out your identification once somebody rips it off can be 25 hours to hundreds of hours."
The sheriff believes the arrests are just the tip of the iceberg. "When you consider that one person who is still under investigation with us, that we served a search warrant on, has more than a million dollars in his ledger and now you extrapolate that across the different counties and states and you find that there's billions of taxpayer dollars being ripped off."
He says the problem is so large the IRS must make changes to slow down the process when processing online returns to ensure that the person filing really is who they say they are.
For example, Judd says if you have a person file one year and they receive a thousand dollars back and then the next year they file for an $8,000 return, that should be a red flag. If one year the filer has no dependants and then the next year they have three, that too should be a red flag.
He also says they found during their investigation, which started in September of 2011, that many of the returns had the wrong address too.
While he admits those factors don't necessarily indicate fraud, he says the IRS should check each return carefully before it shells out taxpayer money.
Sheriff Judd says, "There's billions of taxpayers dollars being ripped off and the IRS is turning that information around at turbo speed."