Victims accumulate while feds investigate
A scam targeting the elderly and disabled has continued to flourish even after an Examiner investigation and subsequent FBI raid exposed a ring of actors filing fraudulent income tax returns on behalf of their victims.
As revealed in the Aug. 16 edition of this publication, hundreds of victims have come forward alleging that representatives of a Dallas-based company are making a practice of soliciting Social Security numbers and other identifying information from elderly and disabled targets with the false promise of securing a government-issued rebate for their “clients.” Instead, according to those who have fallen for their scheme, false tax returns were submitted to the IRS on behalf of the victims, with nearly half of the ill-gotten proceeds being forwarded to an account held by the company, Syam Investments, and its subsidiaries. Once discovered, the victims are on the hook to the IRS for the entire sum.
The scam has hit Southeast Texas hard. Victims of the “stimulus scam” have been identified in Jefferson County, Chambers County, Jasper County, and rural communities all throughout the Golden Triangle.
Local authorities and policing agencies went on the offensive against the alleged fraudulent tax preparers, resulting in a town hall meeting in Port Arthur warning residents of the Syam scam that uses local representatives to separate potential victims from their personal information with the intent to defraud the IRS and the unsuspecting clients. The FBI conducted a raid on a Port Arthur home where the scam was being carried out in September. Multiple boxes of information and paraphernalia were confiscated during the raid, but no official findings regarding the seized goods have been released.
In the interim, the scam marches on.
In the beginning
In August of this year, an Examiner investigation revealed that hundreds of elderly and disabled Southeast Texans had been scammed out of tens of thousands of dollars. Those taken in by the scam were targeted by a group operating under the name “Syam Investments,” owned and operated by Shannon Mays, who filed the bogus tax returns with the IRS. Local representatives of the company included Port Arthur’s Diana Broussard and Houstonian Myra Jones.
Mary Williams was one of the group’s victims. According to her, she met Broussard and Jones while attending a “fourth Saturday” food pantry at her Anahuac church.
“(Jones) said she’d help us get the money we were entitled to,” Williams said. “She said she was with the government and she was here to help us.”
According to the church’s pastor, the Rev. L.A. Walters, Jones only helped herself.
“She made a nice lick off the people in this community,” Walters said. “Myra Jones really pulled a quick one on the people of Southeast Texas. She used the church to scam our community, and I think she very well knew what she was doing.”
Walters said roughly 300 people sought help from Jones through his church, all giving her their driver’s license number, Social Security number and banking information. Further investigation into Jones’ “stimulus refund” outreach revealed she also visited churches in Buna and neighboring communities selling the same pipe dream.
Diana Broussard had also been making a name for herself as a purveyor of the make-believe Social Security stimulus, signing up scores of individuals for the “program” out of her Port Arthur home on Waco Avenue. Like Jones, Broussard targeted church congregations and through word-of-mouth brought clients from as far away as Kountze and Jasper County to her doorstep.
The Examiner spoke with multiple Broussard clients, all of whom said they provided paperwork for a federal stimulus rebate with copies of their driver’s license, Social Security number and banking information.
Better Business Bureau of Southeast Texas Dispute Resolution Director Jay Sheppard and Brand Manager Michelle Brewer spent months fielding complaints from victims like Williams, and saw the rash of allegations snowballing into something bigger. Information compiled at the local BBB listed dozens of complaints against Jones, Broussard and Syam Investments, as well as complaints from banks in Groves, Port Arthur, Anahuac and Buna alleging customers were receiving an influx of what were believed to be fraudulently obtained tax returns.
Following up on tips forwarded to the BBB, Brewer and Sheppard contacted authorities from the Port Arthur Police Department, the Texas Department of Insurance, the Area Agency on Aging in Southeast Texas, the Office of the Attorney General and the IRS seeking relief for those harmed by the scam.
Chambers County Sheriff Joe LaRive told The Examiner he couldn’t divulge too much information on an active case, but did say he was working with the Office of the Inspector General out of Houston and an IRS agent out of New York in relation to the Syam tax fraud allegations back in August.
Victim statements and investigators’ sleuthing led to a federal search warrant issued by Magistrate Judge Keith Giblin for the home of Syam rep Diana Broussard on Wednesday, Aug. 21. The warrant was executed by multiple agencies including local police departments and the FBI with SWAT on the scene. Investigators were tasked with securing, among other things, “documents and information associated with Diana Broussard and Syam Investments ... or any other subsidiary or companion of Syam Inc., and their agents or employees.” Particular items to be seized at Broussard’s Waco Street address were tax forms, business faxes and contracts, bank statements, cell phones and other mobile devices, appointment books, client account ledgers, computer hard drives, jump drives and more.
In requesting the warrant, federal agent Alton Baise, a Task Force officer specializing in financial crime investigations, stated, “There is probable cause to believe that numerous violations of wire fraud have been committed by Diana Broussard and others.” And although the investigators couldn’t comment on any specifics of the open investigation, it was noted by one that, “The number of (victims) involved in this is going to be extensive.”
Port Arthur assistant police chief Raymond Clark was more specific in his statements pertaining to the Syam fraud, stating that city resident Diana Broussard had been identified as a likely perpetrator of this crime, and alerting those who have given her sensitive information to immediately fill out an Identity Theft Affidavit for the IRS, a copy of which is available by contacting the Port Arthur Police Department at (409) 983-8600 or the BBB at (409) 835-5348.
Same song and dance
With authorities in Southeast Texas hot on their trail, the Syam group still perseveres. Authorities in Diboll, Lubbock and Angelina County are now facing an influx of reports alleging the same scam reported in Southeast Texas. As was the case in the Golden Triangle region, the alleged fraudsters approached their victims like wolves in sheep’s clothing.
Diboll resident Betty Murphy, 80, said she was approached by home health provider Jettie Murphy (no relation) of Angelina Home Health, who is a friend’s hired caregiver. According to Betty Murphy, Jettie offered to sign up the senior citizens for a Social Security stimulus. What happened next was a familiar story: Syam filed a falsified tax return on behalf of Betty Murphy, keeping nearly half the proceeds as company profit. Murphy’s daughter and legal representative, Debra Buster, said the subsequent ordeal has been a nightmare.
“The ramifications are much larger than even the tax scam,” Buster surmised. “Even a few dollars can make a difference and impact needed benefits.”
Buster said it took two years for her 80-year-old mother to meet qualification processes required to obtain Social Security benefits; now, an unauthorized IRS income tax return could undo all the hard work put into securing the monthly stipend for the elderly woman.
“This led to a vigilant effort to undo this process which, at this point, has taken a great deal of time and money – which neither of us have any to lose,” Buster said.
But all efforts have proved in vain, Buster reports. Allegations of the tax fraud were made to the IRS, the Angelina County Sheriff’s Office, the Lufkin Police Department, the Diboll Police Department and the Texas Attorney General’s Office – all producing little to no help or consolation.
“I’ve never seen this much lackluster interest in a crime before in my life,” Buster said. “(The government) is worried about cutting Social Security for our seniors, but the IRS apparently has money to give away in the millions.”
Reporter Maegan Prejean of the Lufkin area ABC news affiliate KTRE said Buster’s story wasn’t unusual in the East Texas community. According to Prejean, multiple victims have come forward to KTRE, all with stories similar to that of Buster’s mother.
Among some of the tactics used to solicit information from East Texas senior citizens, Syam representatives such as Jettie Murphy have rented out the community room of a senior housing living center and are focusing on recipients of home health care.
As noted by Port Arthur City Manager Floyd Johnson when alerting Jefferson County residents to the Syam tax fraud, the company’s model is to target “those who are the least likely to fight back.” Johnson also stated that intervention was needed to “try to prevent the spread of something nefarious and bad.” Still, agencies are reluctant to intervene.
“I hope all this trial and error of reporting this will help to clear the path of red tape for everyone else involved in this scam,” Buster said. “I intend to pursue this to the end.”
For all her efforts, Buster said she still can’t find an agency willing to investigate Syam. “I just keep getting bounced from place to place – everyone saying it was someone else who should investigate.”
IRS Criminal Investigation Special Agent Linda Alvarez said she couldn’t offer any comment on any matters related to IRS procedures, but did say that those who feel they have been a victim of tax fraud could contact her with their information at (281) 721-8394, and she “would be happy to forward the information along.”
Even agencies that have a paper trail supporting evidence of an ongoing investigation offer little information to assist those who are still falling prey to Syam’s tax fraud team.
Department of Justice officials refused to confirm or deny that an investigation of Syam Tax Services was underway but the August raid on the Port Arthur home of one of the company’s agents strongly suggests there is indeed such as probe.
When contacted by The Examiner, the U.S. Attorney’s Office issued a general notice advising caution but offering no details about the Syam scam that has been reported since August of this year.
“When choosing a tax preparation service, the U.S. Attorney encourages tax payers to check with their local Better Business Bureau and be diligent in ensuring that they are working with a credible organization that is following the law,” said Davilyn Walston, public information officer for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Texas.
A source familiar with DOJ operations who did not wish to be named in this story said, “You have to understand these guys (DOJ) are prohibited by department guidelines from commenting on something where there is not a case filed or an indictment – but that doesn’t mean they are not all over this thing.”
“This is elder abuse – pure and simple,” Buster asserts. “Who is going to protect our seniors from predators taking advantage of them like this? Unfortunately, I no longer think it’s our federal government.”