ID theft ring filed false tax returns, bought gift cards, authorities say

Eight people from Broward County, including three siblings, are accused of stealing identities to get illegal tax refunds in order to buy thousands of dollars in gift cards from South Florida retailers.

Accused of multiple fraud and aggravated identity theft charges in a federal indictment are:

Siblings Andrew Ware, of Fort Lauderdale; Latanya Ware, of Oakland Park; and Latonya Ware, of North Lauderdale, all 27; David Tilus, 27, Sherika Rowe, 20, both from Fort Lauderdale, and Alex Dontfred, 29, of Coral Springs.

Two others, Jaqwayn Henry, 23, and Fritznel Etienne, 24, remain at large, authorities said.

The group fraudulently obtained more than 20 different debit and credit card numbers, but is suspected of having more than 100 victims nationwide, said Sgt. Rich Rossman, of the Broward Sheriff’s Organized Retail Crime Unit.

“It’s just as lucrative as the narcotic trafficking trade,” he said. “They try to hide behind the anonymity of their computer, stay undetected as opposed to being out on the street selling narcotics.”

According to a federal indictment, the group used stolen information to file income tax returns for a total of $54,465 in refunds, the indictment said.

The fraudulently obtained tax refunds were then used at stores, primarily Walmart stores in Lauderdale Lakes, Pompano Beach, Coral Springs, Delray Beach and Coconut Creek, where more than $18,000 worth of gift cards were purchased between November 2011 and August 2012, authorities said.

In addition to the gift cards, high-end electronics were also purchased and were then sold to turn over a “100 percent profit” for the co-conspirators, Rossman said.

During the investigation, authorities found that the group initially targeted major retailers, but then “branched out” during tax season to turn their focus on filing false tax returns, Rossman said.

“They saw the future was endless. They got more into identity theft and tax fraud,” he said.

The investigation is continuing as authorities try to find others who might have helped the group acquire victims’ identities, he said.

The Broward Sheriff’s Office, Internal Revenue Service, Secret Service and the U.S. Attorney’s Office jointly conducted the nearly two-year investigation.

Authorities urge the public to safeguard their personal information to avoid becoming an identity theft victim.

Criminals can do a lot of damage by gathering information such as a name, date of birth and a Social Security number— each a “valuable commodity,” Rossman said.

All of the defendants, with the exception of Henry and Etienne, pleaded not guilty this week, court records show.

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