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In exclusive interview, Tampa tax fraudster says crime was 'easy'

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PINELLAS COUNTY, FL -

It was easy money – so easy that it was hard to resist. Russell Simmons says he was broke when he filed his first fake tax return using a stolen identity. And when he figured out a formula that worked, he just kept filing.

"The money was just so simple, it was just so easy," Simmons said in an exclusive jailhouse interview with News Channel 8 and The Tampa Tribune. "You get addicted."

Sitting down to talk publicly about the tax refund crime for the first time since he was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison, Simmons said he filed hundreds of returns.

In an interview that lasted more than an hour at the Pinellas County Jail, where Simmons is being held before being transferred to a federal prison, Simmons laid out his strategy for the tax refund fraud crime. His story, if true, reveals gaps in the tax system and the vulnerability of social security numbers that criminals have pounced on to create a multi-billion dollar crime.

The government estimates he filed returns claiming tax refunds worth $8.9 million, with $3.4 million of that approved. Some of that money was stopped along the way, though, and the government says he got $1.8 million.

Simmons says he thinks he actually received less, in the hundreds of thousands.

A Tampa car dealer, Simmons said he used the money to buy clothes and jewelry, and to keep his business running. Included in the haul confiscated by law enforcement in the Simmons investigation are a Bentley and a $13,000 custom necklace with the initials RS.

Simmons described the first time he got a return though the system and got the money from his illegal activity as "exciting."

He was amazed that he could get so much money – estimating his average fraudulent refund at more than $9,000 – for so little effort. Completing a fraudulent tax return took five to seven minutes, he said.

To file, Simmons and other fraudsters needed the tools of the trade for this type of fraud: identities. Specifically, they needed names, dates of birth and social security numbers.

Simmons got most of his identities online, by looking up death certificates in the Social Security Administration's Death Master Index. It is a public list of deceased individuals to which legislators including U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) have been trying to restrict access.

But Simmons also used living victims.

He says he found opportunity at a doctor's office that had a sign-in sheet that included names, dates of birth and social security numbers.

"You could easily use your phone and take a photograph of the clip board," Simmons said.

Identities are also a known commodity on the streets, and Simmons says he sometimes bought them, though he said he was concerned about keeping his activities discreet and not opening himself up to too many others. Prices for the personal info varied, he said, but he might be able to buy 20 names and identifiers for $500. Not all the names would work, but getting just one or two would make the purchase worth it.

The access to identities is part of what made the crime possible.

"If you're working at a doctor's office or a nursing home, don't let a person's information be so easily accessed," Simmons warned.

Simmons is also dispensing some advice to the IRS on how to spot fraudulent returns. Some of his comments are similar to those of victims, who have wondered how returns inconsistent with their previous filings get through the system.

"I think if you find a person, let's say elderly 70, 80, 90 years old, trying to file a return that probably has never filed a return before and all of a sudden trying to file a return? I think that should throw up a red flag for you," he said.

Simmons said he also claimed tax credits on his filings that may have been unlikely matches for the elderly individuals whose names he was using – and the returns went through.

There are some inconsistencies to Simmons' story compared with that of investigators. For example, Simmons said he "never got a Treasury check from anybody." But investigators say he took Treasury checks from customers at his car dealership, and Treasury checks were among the items seized in the government's search.

Simmons says he believes some efforts by the IRS and law enforcement may be working, and that from what he can see on the streets in Tampa, the fraud may be going down here. Simmons saw the presence of certain cars, spending and luxury items as signs of the crime and says the tax fraud movement was "bigger than the crack era" with pure profit from the crimes.

Simmons, a father of five including a two-month old baby, now says "it was wrong, totally wrong." And he has advice for others still doing it.

"You're going to get caught," Simmons said. "It's going to come to an end. Stop it."

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