QUEENS — Seven people were slapped with a 90 count indictment for fraudulently using people's personal information to steal tax refund checks totaling more than $500,000, Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown announced.
The seven suspects were charged with enterprise corruption, conspiracy, and grand larceny and could be sentenced to a minimum of five years or a maximum of 25 if convicted, said the DA's office, which conducted a lengthy investigation into the alleged activity.
"This case, unfortunately, is just a snapshot of what is alleged to be a widespread tax fraud scheme that has moved from its epicenter in the New York-New Jersey area to other parts of the country and is responsible for draining tens of millions of dollars from the federal treasury," Brown said in a statement.
The alleged ringleader, 44-year-old Jose Mercedes, along with his son Jose A. Mercedes, 20, and nephew Stalin DeJesus, 30 were arraigned in Queens Thursday. The other four — Srinivas Bikkasani, 52, Hilda Baide Villatoro, 46, Jeronimo Baide Pinto, 44, Satya Garaga, 35 — were being held in Union County, NJ.
The group, which includes employees at two New Jersey check cashing companies, used the stolen identities to obtain tax refund checks and then forged official documents like Social Security cards.
Checks and fake documents in hand, they'd then visit the check cashing companies — Developers Network, Inc. and Stonehouse Partners, Inc. — and get their money during the alleged fraud, which spanned between August 2011 and November 2012.
The group frequently used the identities of Puerto Ricans because they were less likely to raise alarm. Most aren't required to file income taxes to the federal government if all of their income is earned within Puerto Rico.
"As a result, the numbers were not likely to show up as duplicate tax returns nor would the actual Social Security holder likely report that a duplicate return had been filed,” Brown explained.
Thursday's indictment concludes a nearly year-and-a-half investigation involving the Queens District Attorney's office, the Port Authority, and other government agencies.
"It's appalling that these individuals would use our airport facilities as part of a brazenly fraudulent scheme to steal the identities of hard-working people as part," said Port Authority Police Superintendent Michael Fedorko. "We're pleased that the case was successfully concluded with today's arrests."