A postal worker steals refund checks in a scheme that claimed almost $500,000 in additional income. Earl Champagne said he stole 72 IRS refund checks intended for delivery on his route in Pennsauken between April and July 2014 when he worked as a postal worker, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for New Jersey.
The 47-year-old Willingboro man said he was paid $50 per check, or $3,600, to steal the IRS mail with a total value of about $443,000. Authorities said Champagne worked for two co-conspirators identified only as residents of Maple Shade and Merchantville, Forbes reports.
“The individuals expected to either pick up the checks from Champagne or for him to notify them that the checks were in the mailbox so that they could retrieve the checks themselves,” said the federal prosecutor’s office.
The postal worker who stole the refund checks was told by his co-conspirators that the checks would be addressed to people with “Spanish names.” The schemers then would pick up the refund checks directly from Champagne or the mailman would notify them when the checks hit a mailbox, so the co-conspirators could retrieve the payments.
This is all part of a bigger scam called Stolen Identity Refund Fraud (SIRF) that costs the Treasury more than $2 billion annually, prosecutors said. It works by perpetrators obtaining personal information, such as Social Security numbers and dates of birth, from unknowing residents living in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.
The refund checks were not intended for Pennsauken residents, but instead were part of a scam that used identity information from unwitting residents of Puerto Rico, FOX News reported.
The scammers file fraudulent tax returns by falsifying wages that generate refund checks from the government. By bribing mail carriers like the postal worker who stole the refund checks, the perpetrators control the locations they can receive the checks before cashing the stolen funds, the U.S. Attorney’s Office stated.
Residents of Puerto Rico are issued Social Security numbers, but do not have to pay federal income tax if all of their income is from sources on the island. As a result, many Puerto Ricans do not know fraudulent tax returns have been filed in their names.
The federal government is believed to lose more than $2 billion per year due to refunds based on stolen identities.
People conducting stolen-identity scams typically have refund checks mailed to addresses they can “control or access,” the prosecutor’s office said. “In some cases, (they) bribe mail carriers to remove the checks from their mail routes.”
CBS News said that Champagne, a postal worker from 1995 to November 2014, pleaded guilty to individual counts of theft of U.S. mail and theft of government money. Each charge carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison. He is to be sentenced Aug. 3 by U.S. District Judge Robert B. Kugler in Camden.
Champagne’s lawyer, Michael Riley, says the postal worker who stole the refund checks is a family man who worked hard for the postal service for nearly 20 years. He calls Champagne’s actions “a shame.”