SEBRING — Between 400 and 500 residents of Highlands County may have been defrauded of millions of dollars because of identity theft, Highlands County Sheriff Susan Benton said Monday.
Benton said the investigation of that possible fraud has targeted five suspects, three of whom were former employees of Highlands Regional Medical Center.
Most of the fraud, she said, involved people using stolen personal identification information to apply for tax refunds in the names of the victims. Benton said one case of fraud led to a much larger investigation and a search warrant of a home that resulted in seizure of computers and guns.
Benton said she does not know whether all of the victims were patients at Highlands Regional. And because the investigation involves income tax fraud, the sheriff’s office handed it to the IRS, she said.
A spokesman for the IRS did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Highlands Regional declined to comment on the matter.
“We appreciate the opportunity to comment, but the matter is being managed by law enforcement so we can provide no information at this time,” said Susan Reed, marketing director and spokeswoman for Highlands Regional.
While the extent to which the Highlands Regional patient information is part of the identity fraud remains unknown, a Sebring area woman who does not want her name used, said she was the victim of income tax fraud in 2011.
Two years later, on April 2, 2014, the woman said she received a letter from Highlands Regional regarding a possible breach of her personal information.
“I am writing to inform you of a disclosure of your personal information that was discovered on March 20, 2014, when local authorities found your name, date of birth, and Social Security number at a former employee’s home,” wrote Lynn Reasoner, facility privacy officer. “We believe it is possible your personal information was taken from Highlands Regional Medical Center. We continue to work with local authorities and have now been given approval to notify you of this event and enable you, at your discretion, to take steps to protect yourself against possible misuse of your information.”
The letter adds, “Although we are not certain your personal information was obtained from Highlands Regional Medical Center, we want you to know we take this information seriously and are committed to assuring the security of your data.”
The hospital offered the woman a free 12-month membership of a service that helps protect against identity fraud. It offers a free credit report, credit monitoring, lost wallet protection and $1 million identity theft insurance, the letter said.
The woman said that when she found out she was the victim of identity fraud in 2011, she learned that someone had filed for an income tax refund in her name. It took considerable effort to get her refund, she said.
She said she knows another person who received the same letter.