Acting U.S. Attorney Leary Warns About Fraudsters Stealing Personal Information And Claiming COVID-19 Benefits Using Fake Websites
ALBANY, Ga. – A Florida woman who concocted a complicated student financial aid fraud scheme, stealing the identities of 2,300 people, has been sentenced to prison and will pay back more than $300,000 in restitution, said Charles “Charlie” Peeler, the United States Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia.
April Thornton, 35, of Lake Alfred, Florida was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Louis Sands on Thursday, August 27 to 36 months in prison and three years of supervised release after she pleaded guilty to possession of unauthorized devices. Judge Sands also ordered Thornton to pay restitution to the IRS in the amount of $217,738 and to the U.S. Department of Education in the amount of $121,238, for a total of $338,976 in restitution. There is no parole in the federal system.
According to facts admitted by the defendant, Thornton’s illegal activity was first discovered during a routine traffic stop in 2014 by a Cook County deputy. The deputy, smelling marijuana from the car and discovering Thornton’s driver’s license was suspended, executed a legal search, finding a large amount of personal identity information, financial information and medical information scattered throughout the car and in the trunk, ranging from college debit cards to social security numbers. Officers found personal identity information for several people who were found to be student financial aid fraud victims. Investigators ultimately discovered that Thornton filed 202 false tax returns with the IRS between 2011 and 2013, receiving $217,738 in refunds. Investigators also discovered 32 student fraud victims from the names Thornton possessed, including the dispersal of $121,238 in fraudulent student loans, often received in debit cards. In all, investigators found Thornton possessed the identities of 2,300 people, with Thornton attempting to reap $1,563,166 in illegal gains.
“Stealing identities to then steal money from the government hurts those whose identities were stolen and the American taxpayer. Identity theft severely disrupts a person’s life and oftentimes the damage is done before a person is even aware they have been the victim of a crime. Our office will pursue justice for victims of identity theft and recover money stolen from the United States,” said Charlie Peeler, the U.S. Attorney. “IRS Criminal Investigation, the U.S. Secret Service, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General and the Cook County Sheriff’s Office did an excellent job investigating this complicated scheme, and helping bring justice for the victims.”
“Identity theft inflicts a tremendous amount of damage on innocent victims,” said James E. Dorsey, Special Agent in Charge of the IRS Atlanta Field Office. “Ms. Thornton perpetuated an elaborate scheme driven by greed and a blatant disregard for her victims. Today’s sentencing is two-fold: Justice being served to Ms. Thornton and to the victims of a sophisticated stolen identity refund fraud scheme. We will continue to pursue criminals who prey on innocent victims, and we will continue to enforce our nation’s tax laws.”
“Identity theft is an ever-increasing problem across the country. Victims have their lives invaded in a way that often causes long-lasting financial consequences. The United States Secret Service, along with our law enforcement partners, remain committed to aggressively pursuing those committing these crimes,” said Clint Bush, Resident Agent in Charge, Albany, Georgia Resident Office, United States Secret Service.
“Federal student aid exists so that individuals can make their dream of a higher education a reality. Ensuring that those who steal student aid – through identity theft or other means – are stopped and held accountable for their criminal actions is a big part of our mission,” said Neil Sanchez, Special Agent in Charge of the U.S. Department of Education Office of Inspector General’s Southern Regional Office. “I’m proud of the work of the Office of Inspector General and our law enforcement partners for their work in this case, and we will continue to work together to stop those who steal federal education funds. America’s students and taxpayers deserve nothing less.”
The case was investigated by the Internal Revenue Service-Criminal Investigations, the U.S. Secret Service, the U.S. Department of Education Office of Inspector General’s Southern Regional Office and the Cook County Sheriff’s Office. Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert McCullers prosecuted the case for the Government. Questions can be directed to Pamela Lightsey, Public Information Officer, United States Attorney’s Office, at (478) 621-2603 or Melissa Hodges, Public Affairs Director (Contractor), United States Attorney’s Office, at (478) 765-2362.