Chuck Williams

Chuck Williams: Identity theft ranking gets federal judge's attention

ROBIN TRIMARCHI rtrimarchi@ledger-enquirer.comSawan "Sunny" Shah, second from right, leaves federal court Tuesday surrounded by friends. Shah pleaded guilty to one count of operating an unlisenced money transmitting business.  01.26.16
ROBIN TRIMARCHI rtrimarchi@ledger-enquirer.comSawan "Sunny" Shah, second from right, leaves federal court Tuesday surrounded by friends. Shah pleaded guilty to one count of operating an unlisenced money transmitting business. 01.26.16 rtrimarchi@ledger-enquirer.com

Any time a federal judge takes a left turn during a sentencing hearing, you pay attention.

That was the case two weeks ago when U.S. District Court Judge Clay Land brought up an issue that was somewhat related to the matter at hand. Land was sentencing Sawan "Sunny" Shah, a Columbus convenience store owner, for his role in a complex identity theft ring that stole more than $24 million from the IRS through more than 4,000 fraudulent income tax returns.

So far, more than a dozen people have been sentenced to federal prison for their roles in the criminal enterprise. Shah got 21 months for one count of operating an unlicensed money transmitting business. He admitted to cashing 567 fraudulent tax refund checks worth more than $1.3 million.

Databases from Fort Benning and Columbus-based public companies TSYS and Carmike were breached as part of the scam, according to testimony. Which brings us back to Judge Land. Prosecutor Michael C. Boteler, a Washington attorney with the Department of Justice, Tax Division, brought up the fact that this region is No. 2 in the nation in identity theft.

What Boteler was referring to and Land seized on was a 2015 Federal Trade Commission report that found that Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, Fla., was the top area for identity theft ahead of Columbus using then two-year-old data. In the 2013 numbers, there were 633 identity theft complaints reported. The measurement used to rank cities had the Columbus region with 340 identity thefts per 100,000 residents.

When Boteler raised the statistics in court, you could almost see Land's ears perk up. He quickly began to ask Boteler about that claim.

"You would think my docket would be loaded up with these cases if we were No. 2 in identity theft," Land said to Boteler. "I have only seen a handful of these. Why so few?"

Good question, your honor. In the cases involving Shah and those who conspired to steal identities and federal funds, most of them, with Shah being the notable exception, have been tried in federal court in Alabama.

One point Boteler made was the government had additional cases in the works. The judge did not press him on that matter, but Land wasn't finished. "Our fair city is No. 2 on a list that it would not like to be on, and I don't see much prosecution," Land said.

The judge had made his point and moved on to the matter at hand, sentencing Shah. Last week, a 37-year-old Columbus woman pleaded guilty in Land's court to wire fraud and identity theft for filing $924,123 in false tax returns with the Internal Revenue Service. Michelle Simmons worked with a Florida woman to file the returns using stolen identities. This appears unrelated to the scheme in which Shah was involved.

So the cases are starting to come, but it will be interesting to see what, if anything, comes of Land's observation.

Chuck illiams, senior reporter, at chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.com.

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