The couple arrived at Morton's Steakhouse in downtown Fort Lauderdale ready to do business. The product they were selling: a flash drive with 700,000 stolen identifications that could be used to file fraudulent tax returns and rake in millions of dollars, according to federal documents.
Federal officials arrested Tiwanna Tenise Thomason and Troy Maye this week as part of an aggressive crackdown by a special task force with separate units in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties.
The task force has arrested and charged about 100 defendants since October, said Alicia Valle, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami. They are responsible for claiming more than $40 million in fraudulent refunds, she said.
Authorities found only 46 identifications on the flash drive seized after a surveillance — it included names, birth dates, Social Security numbers — but U.S. Attorney Wifredo A. Ferrer noted one recent Broward defendant had access to 26,000 stolen identities. That could have resulted in more than $90 million fake federal refunds, Ferrer estimated.
"This scheme is spreading like a virus all over South Florida," he said. "Folks in other types of crimes are now turning to the stolen identity-fax fraud scheme. It fuels their other crimes — drugs, gangs. I see it as a tsunami of fraud. It is less violent and more lucrative."
Most of the thieves try to file their bogus returns early before honest taxpayers get a chance, he said. With federal income tax season starting Jan. 30, Ferrer said he wants to scare off the thieves who have made South Florida the nation's No. 1 metro area for identity theft.
"It is one of my top priorities to stop them," Ferrer said. He said Thursday he couldn't comment on Thomason or Maye or other pending cases. Prosecutors are using a network of informants to track down alleged thieves.
On Monday, Sabrina Balkman-Bradwell of Hialeah, 47, who has worked out a reduced plea agreement, guilty, will be sentenced in a Fort Lauderdale court room to up to 10 years in prison. Federal prosecutors first accused her of stealing $5.6 million in 1,712 fraudulent tax returns from January to March 2011. That later was amended to $2.5 million to $3 million, said her attorney Rick Hutchinson of West Palm Beach. He denied she was a ring leader.
But detractors call her the "South Florida Queen of Identity Theft" and sent an email to the Sun Sentinel, complaining of what they consider a lenient plea agreement. They accused her of stealing more than what court documents say and leading a life of luxury, including building a mansion in Waverly.
"They are lying," said Balkman-Bradwell in a brief telephone interview. She refused to talk further about her case.
An accomplice, Edwin Bonannee, 32 of Hollywood pleaded guilty to a reduced sentence and received a reduced sentence after he implicated Balkman-Bradwell, said his attorney Edward O'Donnell.
"He was completely truthful and candid on each aspect of the conspiracy," including detailing how they obtained "a good deal of money," through the fraudulent tax refunds, O'Donnell said.
U.S. Attorney Ferrer said federal officials have found those "flipping" in the tax fraud cases have been accurate as a whole. "You have to rely on the smaller fish to get the bigger fish," he added.
It was another tax fraudster who implicated Fort Lauderdale identity theft suspect Thomason on New Year's Eve and arranged to meet her and her boyfriend in Fort Lauderdale a few days later.
Officials say Thomason had previously offered him 200,000 stolen identities — with names, dates of birth and Social Security numbers in order to file fraudulent tax returns, according to federal records.
But when they first met Saturday at YOLO restaurant, a hip hotspot on East Las Olas Boulevard, the boyfriend, Maye, purportedly said he actually had 700,000 stolen identities.
"What do you need for me to do, file it [fake tax returns] and get it done?" the informant asked.
"Yeah," Maye is said to have replied.
He added that he had used some of the identities the year before to file false tax returns and said they were "good," according to the federal documents.
In a trial run, Maye agreed to give the fraudulent tax preparer 50,000 identities on a flash drive. They met Monday at the swank Morton's. Amid servings of steak and macaroni and cheese, Maye handed the flash drive over — which the informant afterward gave to the feds, according to court records.
But federal workers found only 46 identities on the drive. When the informant called back Thomason, her boyfriend got on the line and said he was leery of sending the full 50,000 because he might not get his "take" of the federal tax refund theft, the federal records show.
The informant then reassured "'Troy' that he would honor the agreement if he received the 50,000 names, according to the federal documents. The boyfriend then said he would deliver them. The couple were then arrested.
Researcher Barbara Hijek contributed to this report.
Latest News Stories
A new survey has found that more than half of women surveyed would rather give up sex than their mobile devices for a week.