When we think of the illegal activities of street gangs, we probably think back to news reports, documentaries, or even Hollywood films about dangerous thugs. Drug dealing, gun running, and violent crime probably top the list.
But investigators in Long Beach, California, have wrapped up a three-year investigation into the Insane Crip street gang for a far different type of crime, resulting in the arrests of dozens of members.
Their crime? Identity theft, specifically in regards to tax refund fraud.
The gang members had been investigated previously for other, more typical crimes. At one location a detective discovered an abundance of personal identifiable information on numerous people, which led authorities to launch an investigation into the gang’s identity theft activities. By the time the crimes had been calculated, investigators found the gang was responsible for taking in over $3 million in fraudulent tax refunds and had filed fake returns for another $11 million.
While identity theft and tax fraud are certainly no laughing matter, it’s perplexing to envision hardcore members of a street gang with a history of violent crimes sitting around filling out tax returns. But the reality of this type of crime is it’s on the rise because it’s just so easy to pull off. There’s also very little physical danger for the perpetrator—as compared to something like drug dealing, assault, robbery, and other forms of crime that are meant to net the perpetrator money—and with the ability to receive the fraudulent funds on a prepaid Visa card, it’s difficult to trace the criminal recipient.
Of course, one of the other factors that makes tax refund fraud so enticing to identity thieves is the fact that most victims don’t know they’ve been targeted until the money is already long gone. Accessing someone’s PII at any point in the prior year makes it possible to file a faulty return in January. Victims of tax refund fraud usually only find out about the crime after their own legitimate returns are rejected as duplicates by the IRS.
One of the most important steps involved in preventing tax refund fraud is to file your legitimate return as early as you can, literally in an attempt to beat the criminals to it. By having all of your documentation prepared and ready to submit the moment it’s all in place, you can work to head off a thief. This is especially important if your identity has already been stolen, you’ve been the victim of a data breach involving your PII, or if there are any other circumstances (ie, theft of your wallet or purse) that make it possible for someone to file a return under your information.