By Christopher Zoukis
Two California men are awaiting sentencing for claiming fraudulent tax refunds made with the names and identification information of more than 700 jail and prison inmates.
On Jan. 24, a jury in a federal case in California convicted Howard Webber, a 52-year-old ex-convict who has served time in Milwaukee, Santa Clara and San Quentin, of wire fraud, mail fraud and conspiring to commit mail fraud, for his part in the scam.
Webber and accomplice Clifford Bercovich, a 69-year-old disbarred lawyer, set up a bogus firm, Inmate Assets Recovery and Liquidation Services, and Webber signed up inmates incarcerated with him for a service that supposedly could help them obtain government benefits. At least some of the inmates reportedly received $75 from the schemers to provide their identifying information. Using the information, the defendants then filed for bogus tax refunds in the inmates' names.
Over 700 tax refunds wrongly issued in the names of the inmates went not to the inmates in whose names the refunds were claimed, but instead to mail boxes and bank accounts Webber and Bercovich had set up. Federal prosecutors claimed the pair split more than $600,000 in the approximately two years (2010 to 2012) their scam was running.
The bogus tax returns claimed income from self-employment and took advantage of refundable tax programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), the Making Work Pay Credit, or both. Those programs provide for cash refunds to low-to-moderate income taxpayers, even those not earning enough to owe taxes.
The programs have often been criticized as fraud-prone. The inspector general for the Internal Revenue Service has estimated over one-fifth of EITC payments are improperly issued, though defenders of the credit argue that payments can be deemed improper without being fraudulent. They also point out government officials estimate at least 3.5 million, and perhaps as many as 7 million, taxpayers who meet the standards for EITC payments do not file for them.
From a modest start in 1975, the EITC program has been repeatedly extended and expanded, and now is one of the federal government's largest anti-poverty programs. Many states have also added similar programs to their tax laws. The program paid out more than $7 billion to about 29 million families in 2014. Even so, the EITC program is the only one at IRS which White House budget officials have designated as "high-risk."
As a result, Congress has ordered a slowdown of refund payments to EITC claimants, to allow more time for checking for fraud or identity theft. The IRS says in 2014 it paid out $3.1 billion to identity thieves who filed fraudulent returns, down from $5.8 billion in 2013. During those two years, the agency says it detected and blocked payments on almost $47 billion in fraudulent claims for refunds.
Webber's accomplice, Bercovich, pleaded guilty in December to conspiracy, mail fraud and aggravated identity theft charges. He initially persuaded the trial court he could not be charged with aggravated identity theft, since the identity information had been voluntarily provided. But a three-judge panel of the federal appeals court in San Francisco disagreed and reinstated that charge.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and Prisonerresource.com.