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Cuban man pleads guilty in IRS tax return scam

Posted April 17

— A Cuban national has pleaded guilty to his role in an international conspiracy to file more than 900 phony federal tax returns seeking $2.2 million in refunds by using employee information stolen from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

Yoandy Perez Llanes, 33, pleaded guilty to money laundering conspiracy and aggravated identity theft Monday before a federal judge in Pittsburgh.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Melucci said Llanes' role was to track phony tax refunds that were to be paid as Amazon.com credits and to receive cellphones, computers and other electronics bought with the credits that were shipped to him in Venezuela. The service that converts tax refunds to the merchandise credits is offered by online filing service Turbo Tax and is known as monetizing.

Llanes, through an interpreter, told U.S. District Judge Mark Hornak that he didn't realize at first that the shipments were part of an illegal scheme.

"I simply accepted a job to make some extra money," Llanes said. But Llanes acknowledged learning, at some point, that the refunds and shipments were accomplished using stolen tax information from U.S. citizens, according to his federal public defender, Thomas Livingston.

Melucci said the larger investigation into the hacking and filing of the tax returns is ongoing.

According to the indictment, Llanes and at least three others who have not been publicly identified were part of a group who used the hospital employees' information to collect phony tax refunds. After the credits were used to buy the easily re-sellable electronics, they were shipped by others based in Miami to people like Llanes in Venezuelan cities, including Maracay and Maracaibo. The items were re-shipped to make them harder to trace.

Those in Venezuela then sold the devices through online merchants or auction sites or kept them for personal use. Llanes received an unspecified payment for his role, Melucci said.

UPMC's computers were hacked in January 2014, and at least 939 bogus returns were filed in the next couple of months. The scheme was halted after almost $1.5 million of the $2.2 million in refunds sought through the bogus tax returns had been paid out with about $885,000 of the refunds being monetized through the Turbo Tax/Amazon.com system, Melucci told the judge.

UPMC is a 21-hospital network with thousands of doctors and dominates western Pennsylvania. UPMC officials said as 27,000 of its 62,000 employees lost personal information to the hackers.

As part of his eventual sentence, Llanes has agreed to forfeit more than $696,000 in unredeemed Amazon gift credits.

Llanes faces up to 20 years in prison for the money laundering charge and a mandatory two years tacked onto that for the identity theft charge when he's sentenced Aug. 18.

Another man, Justin Tollefson, a staff sergeant at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Tacoma, Washington, is scheduled to plead guilty next week to a charge of filing false claims against the United States. He's accused of using hacked information from four UPMC employees to file four tax returns seeking more than $56,000 in bogus refunds. He was unsuccessful.

Melucci said Tollefson used some of the hacked information, but wasn't part of the larger scheme involving Llanes and the others. Hacked information is often sold on the "dark web," a series of encrypted internet sites used to share criminal information. Tollefson's attorney didn't immediately comment Monday.

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