Fraud Ringleader Gets 15-Year Sentence10 Co-Conspirators Also Sentenced in ID Thefts at Healthcare Facilities, Other Sites
The leader of a $24 million identity theft and federal income tax refund fraud ring, which stole information from a military hospital, the Alabama Department of Public Health and others, has been sentenced to serve 15 years in prison and pay nearly $6 million in restitution.
Keshia Lanier of Newnan, Ga., was sentenced Sept. 25 by a U.S. District Court judge in the Southern District of Alabama. Lanier pleaded guilty earlier this year to one count of wire fraud and one count of aggravated identity theft, says Michael Boteler, an attorney in the U.S. Department of Justice involved in the prosecution, who declined to elaborate on the case.
Besides Lanier, 10 other co-conspirators have been sentenced for related crimes, with prison terms of as long as 13 years.
The sentencing of Lanier "brings to a close an extensive criminal network led by Keshia Lanier and designed to victimize U.S. citizens and defraud the U.S. Treasury of over $20 million in fraudulent refund claims," said General Ciraolo, acting assistant attorney general, said in a statement released by the Department of Justice. "The substantial sentences imposed on Ms. Lanier and her co-defendants send a clear message that those who chose to engage in such criminal conduct will pay a very heavy price."
Reaction to Sentencing
Some legal experts says the ID theft and tax fraud ring case should put other potential fraudsters on alert.
"The message to the ringleaders and participants of this scheme show that stealing money using a computer will send you to prison for a long, long time," says privacy attorney David Holtzman of security consulting firm CynergisTek.
"The lengths at which the government investigated and prosecuted this long-running, highly evolved fraud ring, catching crooks working for a number of state and federal agencies and resulting in long prison terms, should send a message that activities like this are taken very seriously."
Holtzman says he expects to see similar cases prosecuted. "I believe that the federal law enforcement agencies and the Department of Justice have placed a high priority on investigating and bringing to justice [those involved in] stealing sensitive personal information, cybercrime and resulting financial fraud. Over the past several months, we have seen several arrests or prosecutions involving domestic and international fraud rings," he says. In addition, federal agencies are being directed to devote additional resources to securing and monitoring their information systems to prevent and detect the misuse of sensitive data by insiders, he notes.
Healthcare entities and government agencies, such as public health departments, need to be proactive in efforts to fight ID theft and fraud crimes involving insiders, he says.
"We need to turn our focus away from complying with regulations and prioritize securing the data," Holtzman says. "With the increase in the value of patient healthcare records, organizations need to focus their efforts on placing a greater emphasis on monitoring and auditing who is accessing the information in their networks, understanding where your data is going and putting controls in place to prevent the transfer of mass quantities of protected health information."
Privacy attorney Adam Greene of the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine says crimes involving stolen IDs will continue to be a major problem. "My impression is that the use of patient information to commit various forms of identity theft continues to rise," he says.
"Healthcare organizations can reduce risk through thorough background checks, limiting access to full Social Security numbers and other sensitive information and auditing access logs for suspicious patterns," Greene notes. "However, as long as people need access to sensitive information to do their jobs, I don't see a means of completely eliminating this risk. An increase in criminal prosecutions will have some deterrent effect, but there will always be some who will break the law despite the potential consequences."
Among others involved in the crime ring who've been sentenced is Tracy Mitchell, a former worker at a military hospital in Fort Benning, Ga., where prosecutors say she had access to the identification data of military personnel, including soldiers who were deployed to Afghanistan. Mitchell stole the personal information of soldiers and used that information to file false tax returns, prosecutors say (see Ex-Hospital Worker Sentenced in $24 Million Fraud Case).
Between January 2011 and December 2013, Lanier and Mitchell led a large-scale identity theft ring in which Lanier, Mitchell and their co-defendants filed more than 9,000 false individual federal income tax returns that claimed more than $24 million in fraudulent claims for tax refunds, according to information provided in court documents and at the sentencing hearings.
The IRS paid out close to $10 million in refunds based on these fraudulent claims, prosecutors say. Besides the military hospital, the defendants obtained the stolen identities from a variety of other sources, including from the U.S. Army, several Alabama state agencies, a Georgia call center and employee records from a Georgia company.
In August, Mitchell was sentenced to serve more than 13 years in federal prison after pleading guilty to one count of conspiracy to file false tax claims, one count of wire fraud and one count of aggravated identity theft. She was also ordered to pay a penalty of more than $300,000.
Among the other defendants in another related case linked to the same fraud ring was Tamika Floyd, a former worker of the Alabama Department of Public Health from 2006 to May 2013, and the Alabama Department of Human Resources from May 2013 to July 2014. Floyd was sentenced in May to serve more than seven years in federal prison after pleading guilty to fraud conspiracy and ID theft crimes. While working in her state jobs, Floyd had access to databases that contained identification information of individuals, which she stole and provided to the crime ring's co-conspirators for the filing of false tax returns, prosecutors say.
Others who were sentenced earlier this year for crimes related to the ID theft and tax refund fraud ring include:
- Talarius Paige of Phenix City, Ala., who was sentenced to serve five years in prison and ordered to pay more than $760,000 in restitution;
- Tamaica Hoskins of Phenix City, 12 years in prison and nearly $1.1 million in restitution;
- Mequetta Snell-Quick of Columbus, Ga., two years in prison and nearly $200,000 in restitution;
- Latasha Mitchell of Phenix City, 36 months in prison and more than $500,000 in restitution;
- Dameisha Mitchell of Phenix City, 65 months in prison and more than $440,000 in restitution;
- Sharonda Johnson of Phenix City, two years in prison and $440,000 in restitution;
- Patrice Taylor of Midland, Ga., one year in prison and nearly $29,000 in restitution;
- Cynthia Johnson of Phenix City, two years of probation and $5,000 in restitution.