Bruce Parton was only a few weeks from retirement after 30 years as a mail carrier in sunny Florida.
He never lived to fulfill his retirement plan of moving back to a quiet life in the Catskill mountains of New York, not far from where he grew up on Long Island.
Instead, he was gunned down on his daily mail route in December 2010 by members of an identity theft ring who stole his master key as part of a scheme to claim fraudulent tax refunds.
Using stolen names and Social Security numbers, criminals are filing phony electronic tax forms to claim refunds, exploiting a slow-moving federal bureaucracy to collect the money before victims, or the Internal Revenue Service, discover the fraud.
Parton was a victim of what officials say has ballooned into a massive, and dangerous, illegal industry that could cost the nation $21 billion over the next five years, according to the U.S. Treasury Department.
While the IRS says it has detected cases in every state except North Dakota and West Virginia, the fraud’s epicenter is Florida, and it is mostly concentrated in Miami and Tampa.
Miami has 46 times the per-capita rate of false tax refund claims than the rest of the country, and 70 times the national average in dollar terms, [the United States Attorney for south Florida Wifredo] Ferrer told Reuters.
“For whatever reason, we always tend to lead the nation when it comes to fraud,” he said, noting that his office has been battling massive Medicare fraud in recent years that has since spread to other parts of the country.
Florida’s high proportion of older residents, who can be more vulnerable to fraud, may be one reason for the high levels of fraud in the state.
Nationwide, the number of cases of tax identity theft detected by authorities sky-rocketed to more than 1.2 million cases in 2012 from only 48,000 in 2008, according to the Treasury Department.
The tax ID theft problem is particularly troubling as, unlike Medicare fraud, it is associated with violent crime and armed gangs.
Tampa police first detected it in 2010 when officers discovered wanted street criminals engaged in tax fraud. “They were holed up in hotels with laptops churning out tax claims,” said congresswoman Kathy Castor, who represents the area and is pressing the IRS to get tougher on the fraud.
“The scheme is very basic, it works virtually the same in almost every case,” said Ferrer. “All they need is your name and the tax ID number.”
Armed with that information a refund claim can be filed electronically, making up other details on the form, including addresses, employer data, income and deductions.
Criminals obtain the vital numbers using various tactics, often by bribing office workers with access to personnel files inside companies, as well as large public institutions such as hospitals and schools, according to prosecutors.
In Parton’s case the criminals were after his master key that gives postal workers access to mail drop-off boxes and apartment mailboxes. He was shot twice in the chest by a gunman as part of a plot to steal identities in people’s mail for tax refund fraud.
The gunman, Pikerson Mentor, 31, was sentenced last month to life plus 42 years.
The IRS said last week it is intensifying a crackdown on identify theft, with 3,000 agents devoted to tackling the problem, double the number assigned in 2011.
The number of IRS criminal investigations into identity theft more than tripled in the year to September 2012, and it was on pace to double again this year, acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller told reporters.