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Fraud is so prevalent in South Florida that it has even infiltrated the world of higher education.
Fourteen former and current Miami Dade College students were arrested today along with three others for their participation in a tax refund scheme that sought to rip off the federal government for $1.9 million by using bank accounts set up for financial aid to launder the money. Four other past and present students remain at large.
"Students attend college to give themselves a better chance for a successful future. These students, however, are accused of federal crimes that could land them in prison and tarnish their records forever, " said Kelly R. Jackson of IRS Criminal Investigation in a statement. "As we approach the next tax filing season, let me warn others not to be enticed to participate in this type of criminal behavior to make a few dollars. People who steal identities to file false tax returns and receive fraudulent refunds will be subject to prosecution. IRS Criminal Investigation is committed to continuing our work with the U.S. Attorney's Office and our law enforcement partners to bring the individuals who commit these crimes to justice."
Investigators believe the students were recruited so that fraudulently obtained tax refunds and social security benefits could be placed into their bank accounts. Many of the accounts were set up through a company called Higher One, which specializes in accounts meant to collect financial aid used for education.
Students were paid a part of the refund to allow their accounts to be used, and others were paid a finder's fee for recruiting other students.
For example, authorities allege that Sandy Jean-Louis allowed her Higher One account to receive tax refunds stolen from 37 different victims. Erving Etienne's Higher One account received refunds from 91 separate victims.
"Identity theft is a serious and growing crime that destroys the financial lives of thousands of South Floridians every year, " said George L. Piro of the FBI's Miami Division in a statement. "Those arrested today were part of a Miami-based group who systematically hacked into numerous businesses and government institutions. Once inside, they stole personally identifiable information from unsuspecting victims to unlawfully file tax returns and redirect Social Security payments. The fraudsters subsequently utilized over 1, 000 college student loan accounts in order to deposit illicit funds and launder the ill gotten money. No more. The FBI and our law enforcement partners will investigate and criminally prosecute such fraud to the fullest extent of the law."
Those arrested include Caleb Fadet, 27, of Miami Beach, Laquisha Q. Johnson, 24, of Opa-locka, and Glasner Simplice, 20, Ronald Dumond, 22, Bianca Noel, 21, Emmanuel Avrilien, 22, Andy Lamour, 22, Sandy Jean-Louis, 21, Tamica Smith, 26, Marie Joseph, 25, and Gerrey Cherrelus, 22, all of Miami.
Authorities say that Miami Dade College worked closely with investigators, and that the growing trend of using financial aid accounts to launder money is not unique to the school.