Guilty plea in tax data theft case

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A man living in Venezuela who was part of a ring that used stolen University of Pittsburgh Medical Center employee identifications to file bogus tax returns for refunds admitted his crimes Monday in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh.

Relying on a Spanish translator, Yoandy Perez Llanes, 33, a native of Cuba, pleaded guilty to money laundering conspiracy and a count of aggravated identity theft for his role in an international tax scheme that federal agents are still unraveling. He had been indicted in 2015 on 21 counts of conspiracy, wire fraud, money laundering, and ID theft and extradited to Pittsburgh after a legal fight that reached Venezuela’s top court.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office hailed the charge and the extradition as victories in the Justice Department’s efforts to bring international cyber criminals to face punishment in the U.S. courts.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Greg Melucci said Llanes was among a group of conspirators who took advantage of tens of thousands of UPMC W-2 forms that hackers stole and sold on the dark web, an encrypted online marketplace for cyber criminals.

The criminal division of the IRS in Pittsburgh and the Secret Service still are working to determine who broke into UPMC’s computers in 2014 and stole about 62,000 W-2s.

But the agencies have since identified others who bought the stolen data and used it to file tax returns in a crime that has become common enough to generate its own acronym among federal agents – SIRF, or stolen identity refund fraud.

Melucci said Llanes’ cohorts filed 939 bogus tax returns using the stolen W-2s and obtained about $1.4 million in illegal refunds from the IRS. He said Llanes’ role in the operation was to use that money to buy credits, a monetizing service offered through Turbo Tax, to buy cellphones, laptops. and other electronics.

The items were then sent through a re-shipper in Miami to his hotel in Venezuela, where he signed for the packages. Agents said he resold the merchandise online for a cut of the proceeds.

Llanes appeared reluctant to plead at first and told U.S. District Judge Mark Hornak that he did not initially know that the shipments he received were part of a fraud scheme that fleeced the U.S. Treasury. “I accepted a job to make some extra money,” he said through his translator.

But he later admitted that he came to realize the refunds were the result of stolen U.S. taxpayer information and acknowledged his guilt.

Hornak will sentence him Aug. 18.

Llanes is one of the main players in the UPMC fraud, although Melucci said he was not the ringleader and that the case is ongoing as agents work to catch others involved.

Agents have publicly identified another, a Venezuelan woman named Maritza Maxima Soler Nodarse, who was arrested in Colombia in March 2016 and is awaiting extradition to Pittsburgh.

She, like Llanes, is a Cuban native and is accused of money laundering and conspiracy to defraud the U.S. Treasury.

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