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Operation Rapid Refund tracks down scammers

Investigators call it one of the fastest growing crimes in the United States

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Identity theft continues to be one of the fastest-growing crimes in the nation. But here's something you might not have known: The crime includes fraudulent tax filings costing billions of dollars. 

Crooks use stolen identities to file for a tax return online. Victims have no idea until they try to file their own return. Inspectors said that when filing, identity thieves ask to have their refunds put on a debit card.

"In order for them to get the money, they need other people to receive those cards in the mail from the IRS," explained U.S. Postal Inspector Jamie Portell.

Postal inspectors tracked down one of these middle men and learned the intricacies of the scam. Once the middle man receives the debit card from the IRS, he sends the card's passwords to the mastermind, who is often overseas. In this case, the go-between was living in a hotel and an astute employee noticed something unusual.

"The suspect was receiving numerous debit cards in different names, and the hotel manager noticed all of these debit cards were going to this one room," said Portell.

A search warrant uncovered valuable evidence.

"We found several debit cards with other people's names on them. We also seized the computer of the suspect, recovered over 200 stolen identities and also the chat messages between the suspect and the suspects in Nigeria," Portell said.

Authorities warned the suspect to discontinue his role in the scheme, but he didn't listen.

"Once we were gone, the suspect immediately went and bought a new computer and informed the Nigerian suspect the feds were just here and they took everything," Portell explained.

The middle man was charged with obstruction of justice and sentenced to 11 years in prison.

"This case is just a small part of a larger case being investigated nationwide. The total losses so far are over $150 million, so this case is hitting a larger part of the country," Portell said.

The case was part of Operation Rapid Refund a task force created by postal inspectors with other law enforcement agencies. Postal inspectors arrested 255 suspects under Operation Rapid Refund in 2013 and recovered more than $833 million.

The best way to figure out if your identity was stolen is to get a copy of your credit report. Everyone is entitled to  one free credit check every year with each of the three credit reporting agencies.

The Better Business Bureau of Northeast Florida recommends the website AnnualCreditReport.com. It has step-by-step instructions and links to all three credit bureaus.