Convenience store operators ran $24M check-cashing scheme

Convenience store operators ran $24M check-cashing scheme

The owners of a convenience store near downtown Winter Garden are facing federal prison time after admitting they were part of a $24 million check-cashing scheme involving fraudulently obtained tax refunds.

The case against Mohammad Sultan and Ashrafunnahar Mohsin, the husband-and-wife who operate DJ’s Discount Market on South Dillard Street, is one of the largest of its kind in Central Florida in recent history.

Federal agents say the couple knowingly bought and cashed — as part of their store’s check-cashing business — thousands of tax-refunds that had been obtained illegally by identity thieves.

Sultan and Mohsin were charged by Orlando federal prosecutors last week with theft of government property. Plea agreements were entered in each case the same day.

Their defense attorneys declined to comment Monday.

Prosecutors also recently filed cases against four people accused of bringing the fraudulent tax-refund checks to DJ’s Discount Market: Lucille Brooks, Clarence Barfield, Tara Whitehead and Demetri Goings. Whitehead, who is from Orlando, and Goings, who is from the Ocala area, are fugitives.

“The IRS has made identity theft and refund fraud a top priority,” said IRS Special Agent James D. Robnett. “IRS Criminal Investigation, along with our law enforcement partners and the United States Attorney’s Office, will remain vigilant in identifying, investigating and prosecuting those individuals who participate in such schemes, from the individuals stealing the identities to those involved in preparing the fraudulent tax returns to the merchants helping to cash the stolen refund checks.”

According to court records, federal authorities began investigating DJ’s Discount Market in August 2010. From that time until February 2012, the agency opened 10 separate investigations involving fraudulently obtained tax-refund checks handled at the Winter Garden business.

Federal agents eventually learned that Brooks, Barfield, Whitehead and Goings cashed more than 2,000 checks at DJ’s Discount Market, which were in other people’s names.

Some of the refund checks were for dead people. Other checks were for prisoners. At least one check was issued to an elderly woman who hadn’t worked in years.

Sultan and Mohsin admitted in their plea agreements that they bought the checks for varying amounts, which usually equaled about 50 percent of the face value of the checks. They knew the refunds were obtained illegally.

After buying the refund checks from their co-conspirators, records stated, Sultan and Mohsin then deposited the checks into their bank accounts.

When agents searched the store in November 2012, they found roughly 185 checks — valued at more than $1 million — in a safe.
According to court records, the business owners told agents their scheme had grown so large that they were holding the checks so their bank and law-enforcement didn’t grow suspicious.

Authorities said Sultan and Mohsin, who face up to 10 years in prison, maintained a spreadsheet of the fraudulent checks they cashed from January to November 2012.

During just that period, DJ’s Discount Market cashed more than $20 million in bad checks. Brooks cashed more than 1,200 of those checks, totaling more than $9 million, IRS agents say.

She was arrested earlier this month and has since been released from jail. Reached by telephone Monday, Brooks hung up on an Orlando Sentinel reporter.

Ira Rheingold, executive director of the National Association of Consumer Advocates, said identity theft is a significant problem across the country.

However, most of the identity-theft cases involve credit cards, and not tax-refund schemes.

“You can leave it to Florida to come up with creative scams,” he said.

Rheingold said there simply is not enough security or protocols to prevent identity theft.

“That’s the fundamental problem,” he said. “Folks who are looking to create scams are getting creative.”

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