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U.S. Attorney: fraud cases caused 'seismic change'

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Robert E. O'Neill Robert E. O'Neill

The federal government has undergone a "seismic change" in dealing with the kind of tax refund fraud cases that have plagued the Bay area, according to the U.S. Attorney for Middle District of Florida.

"There's no question when we first started this, a lot of people either didn't know this was occurring, or if they knew, they didn't see it on the grand scale that we all did see it at the beginning," U.S. Attorney Robert O'Neill, whose district stretches north to Jacksonville and south to Fort Myers, said in an interview Tuesday.

O'Neill said federal authorities are working faster to prosecute cases in which suspects use stolen identities to file fake tax returns, prompting the government to send them refunds of thousands of dollars.

"The typical tax case went on for years and years," he said. "And we've argued this is not a tax case, this is an identity fraud type case."

O'Neill said media coverage, including reports by News Channel 8, combined with efforts by the Tampa Police Department helped bring attention to the crime and prompt the changes.

Law enforcement working together as part of the "Alliance" with the Internal Revenue service are generating a steady flow of cases that are coming in more quickly than before, he said. He expects to see about 100 prosecutions this year.

"I hope at some point that can sort of stop because the IRS will have figured out how to prevent this from occurring, and then we can go back and focus on other types of cases," O'Neill said. "But in the interim period, we still need to prosecute as many cases as possible to deter others from doing it."

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