(SALEM, Ore.) — A Nigerian man has been sentenced to seven years in federal prison for his role in the bilking of over $11 million via an identity-theft scheme from the Internal Revenue Service, the U.S. Attorney's office for Oregon said Tuesday.
An IRS agent has said this is one of the largest tax fraud cases in the United States in which stolen personal identification information was used to defraud the IRS, First Assistant U.S. Attorney for Oregon Scott Erik Asphaug told The Associated Press in an email. Its scope is staggering.
An IRS criminal investigation determined the co-conspirators obtained personal identifying information of more than 259,000 people, and used it to acquire over 19,500 electronic filing PINs from the IRS, the U.S. Attorney's office said in a statement. The co-conspirators obtained and used pre-paid debit cards with the stolen identities to receive direct electronic tax refund deposits. They eventually filed over 10,000 fraudulent federal tax returns, attempting to obtain over $91 million in refunds, with actual losses amounting to over $11 million.
Refunds were withdrawn from the debit cards and at least 2,000 wire transfers totaling over $2.1 million were sent to Nigeria.
For his role, Michael Oluwasegun Kazeem, 24, who came to the United States on a student visa, was sentenced in federal court in the southern Oregon town of Medford on Nov. 8 for conspiracy to commit mail fraud, aggravated identity theft and mail fraud, the U.S. Attorney's office said Tuesday. U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken also ordered Kazeem to pay $4.3 million in restitution.
The authorities got wind of the case when a Medford victim told the IRS in May 2013 that false federal and Oregon state tax returns were filed electronically using her and her husband's names. The returns included personally identifiable information, including their social security numbers and dates of birth. The federal refund was deposited into an account via a prepaid debit card in a suburb of Chicago while the state refund was directed to a bank account in Texas.
In 2014, the co-conspirators also gained access to the IRS "Get Transcript" system where they obtained sensitive taxpayer information and used it to file additional fraudulent returns. In 2015, because of these and other security breaches, the IRS discontinued the "Get Transcript" program nationwide, the statement from the U.S. Attorney's office said.
Last August, Kazeem's brother, Emmanuel Kazeem, was convicted in Medford of mail and wire fraud, aggravated identity theft and conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud. Evidence presented at his trial showed Emmanuel Kazeem purchased over 91,000 taxpayer identities from a Vietnamese hacker.
The Mail Tribune, a newspaper in Medford, reported that tax returns were filed using 13,203 accounts stolen from CICS Employment Services, a company that performs pre-employment background checks and is based in Lincoln City, on the Oregon Coast. The owner of CICS said he lost $420,000 worth of business, and handled hundreds of calls from distressed victims, many with limited means, the newspaper reported.
Asphaug said no taxpayer was out monetarily as a result of the crimes, but that they caused a multitude of issues for taxpayers.
Michael Kazeem joined the conspiracy in 2013 to help his brother, who lived in Bowie, Maryland and Nigeria.
Emmanuel Kazeem's sentencing is scheduled for March 22, 2018.
Michael Kazeem apologized in court.
"I'm deeply and emotionally sorry for the trouble I caused," the Mail Tribune quoted him as saying. "What I did was wrong."
He is to be deported after completing his sentence.