$4 billion in bogus refunds: As tax deadline nears, stolen ID fraud a growing problem for IRS

WASHINGTON (AP) -- An Internet connection and a bunch of stolen identities are all it takes for crooks to collect billions of dollars in bogus federal tax refunds. And the scam is proving too pervasive to stop.

A government report in November said the IRS issued $4 billion in fraudulent tax refunds over the previous year to criminals who were using other people’s personal information. Attorney General Eric Holder said this week that the "scale, scope and execution of these fraud schemes" has grown substantially and the Justice Department in the past year has charged 880 people.

Who’s involved? In a video message released ahead of the April 15 tax filing deadline, Holder said the scams "are carried out by a variety of actors, from greedy tax return preparers to identity brokers who profit from the sale of personal information to gangs and drug rings looking for easy access to cash."

Even Holder isn’t immune. Two men pleaded guilty in Georgia last year to trying to get a tax refund by using his name, Social Security number and date of birth on tax forms.

The IRS says it opened nearly 1,500 criminal investigations related to identity theft in fiscal year 2013, a 66 percent increase over the previous year, and has strengthened filters that help detect where the scams are coming from.


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It says it stops far more fraudulent refunds than it pays out and is making a dent in the problem.

Teenage stabbing rampage suspect was ‘like deer in headlights’ after attack

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- The 16-year-old boy accused of stabbing 22 people at his high school was dazed "like a deer in the headlights" hours later and doesn’t fully grasp what he did, his attorney said Thursday as he sketched out the beginnings of a possible mental health defense.

Deepening the mystery of what set off the violence, attorney Patrick Thomassey said Alex Hribal had no history of mental illness or troublemaking, didn’t abuse drugs and was no outcast at school, where the lawyer described him as a B or B-plus student.

"In a case like this, it’s pretty obvious to me that there must be something inside this young man that nobody knew about," Thomassey told The Associated Press.

The local prosecutor, meanwhile, said Hribal remained an enigma.

"We have very little information about him," Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck said, "except for the fact that he was a student, his age, and how he was as a student."

Sheriff: Man blamed for crash at Fla. day care that killed 4-year-old girl has surrendered

WINTER PARK, Fla. (AP) -- The SUV driver accused of causing a car to crash into a Florida day care, killing a 4-year-old girl and injuring 14 others, most of them children, surrendered to authorities Thursday.

The Orange County Sheriff’s Office tweeted that Robert Alex Corchado was in custody at the jail. Corchado’s attorney, Jack Kaleita, confirmed it, but refused to comment further.

"He had nowhere to go," said Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Wanda Diaz.

The surrender came a day after police say Corchado, 28, crashed his Dodge Durango into a convertible, which in turn smashed into the KinderCare building. Authorities -- and the mother of the little girl who was killed -- pleaded for the suspect to give up, even as they blanketed the state searching for him.

Authorities did not immediately announce charges against Corchado, but he already has a long criminal history. Nicole Quintus, whose daughter Lily Quintus was killed, said he was responsible for heartbreak.

Putin warns European leaders: Gas dispute with Ukraine can threaten their own energy supplies

MOSCOW (AP) -- Vladimir Putin warned Europe on Thursday that it may face a shutdown of Russian natural gas supplies if it fails to help Ukraine settle its enormous Russian gas bill -- a debt that far exceeds a bailout package offered by the International Monetary Fund.

The Russian president’s letter to 18 mostly Eastern European leaders, released Thursday by the Kremlin, aimed to divide the 28-nation European Union and siphon off to Russia the billions that the international community plans to lend to Ukraine. It was all part of Russia’s efforts to retain control over its struggling neighbor, which is teetering on the verge of financial ruin and facing a pro-Russian separatist mutiny in the east.

Putin’s message is clear: The EU has tried to lure Ukraine from Russia’s orbit and into its fold, so it should now foot Ukraine’s gas bill -- or face the country’s economic collapse and a disruption of its own gas supplies.

The tough warning raises the ante ahead of international talks on settling the Ukrainian crisis that for the first time will bring together the United States, the European Union, Russia and Ukraine.

The U.S. State Department on Thursday condemned what it called "Russia’s efforts to use energy as a tool of coercion against Ukraine."

Another ‘possible signal’ detected in Flight 370 search zone where past sounds were heard

PERTH, Australia (AP) -- For the fifth time in recent days, an underwater sensor detected a signal in the same swath of the southern Indian Ocean on Thursday, raising hopes that searchers are closing in on what could be a flight recorder from the missing Malaysian jet.

An Australian air force P-3 Orion, which has been dropping sonar buoys into the water near where four sounds were heard earlier, picked up a "possible signal" that may be from a man-made source, said Angus Houston, who is coordinating the search for Flight 370 off Australia’s west coast.

The latest acoustic data would be analyzed, he said. If confirmed, the signal would further narrow the hunt for the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777, which vanished March 8 while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people aboard.

The Australian ship Ocean Shield, which is towing a U.S. Navy device to detect signal beacons from a plane’s flight data and cockpit voice recorders, picked up two underwater sounds Tuesday. Two sounds it detected Saturday were determined to be consistent with the pings emitted from the flight recorders, or "black boxes."

The searchers are trying to pinpoint the location of the source of the underwater signals so they can send down a robotic submersible to look for wreckage and the flight recorders from the Malaysian jet.

Prosecutor mocks, taunts Pistorius in cross-examination at athlete’s murder trial

PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) -- The chief prosecutor laughed scornfully at an answer from Oscar Pistorius during the Olympic athlete’s murder trial Thursday, mocking the man who shot his girlfriend. The judge sternly instructed the prosecutor to restrain himself and he apologized -- then went right back to trying to pick holes in the testimony of the double-amputee runner.

It was a harsh day of cross-examination for Pistorius, challenged relentlessly about his account of the moments just before he killed Reeva Steenkamp, as well as circumstances related to several firearms charges against him, including the firing of a gun in a crowded restaurant.

Prosecutor Gerrie Nel often sought to goad Pistorius, accusing him of being self-obsessed and hiding the truth about the death of Steenkamp, a 29-year-old model whom he shot through a closed toilet door in his home.

Dressed in a dark suit, Pistorius, 27, responded methodically and in a soft monotone, and only occasionally did his voice rise. He did not break down in tears as he has previously this week in the witness box and did not look at Nel, instead facing the red-robed judge, Thokozile Masipa, on the dais.

The prosecutor seized on virtually every opportunity to challenge the star athlete’s credibility, asserting that he had a string of unlikely excuses for why he wasn’t to blame in the gun charges he faces on top of murder. In casting doubt on the Olympian’s honesty, Nel was pushing the prosecution’s argument that Pistorius is also lying that he killed Steenkamp by mistake, thinking she was an intruder, in the pre-dawn hours of Valentine’s Day last year.

Justice Department: Albuquerque police use ‘excessive force,’ institutional reforms needed

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) -- A scathing report by the U.S. Justice Department released Thursday revealed a troubling and often unjustified pattern of excessive force by the Albuquerque Police Department and recommended that New Mexico’s largest city become the latest municipality to adopt reforms aimed at cleaning up its police force.

The report, which immediately drew support from Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry and other city officials, came after federal officials spent months conducting interviews, scouring videos and reviewing hundreds of pages of documents. According to the report, Albuquerque officers too frequently used deadly force on people who posed a minimal threat and used a higher level of force too often on those with mental illness, often violating their constitutional rights.

Albuquerque joins a list of cities targeted by the Justice Department over allegations of brutality and violations of constitutional rights by police officers. Portland and New Orleans, for example, are among those that have been investigated amid similar complaints.

In Albuquerque, federal investigators focused on 37 shootings -- 23 of them fatal -- by officers since 2010. By comparison, police in the similarly sized cities of Denver and Oakland have been involved in fatal and non-fatal shootings totaling 27 and 23, respectively.

Federal investigators found the majority of those Albuquerque shootings were unreasonable and violated constitutional rights. They also uncovered a significant number of instances in which officers used less lethal measures such as Tasers in an unconstitutional manner.

Americans look past calories as approach to dieting evolves; major brands feel sales slide

NEW YORK (AP) -- Obsessing over calories alone has left dieters with an empty feeling.

The calorie counting that defined dieting for so long is giving way to other considerations, like the promise of more fiber or natural ingredients. That is chipping away at the popularity of products like Diet Coke, Lean Cuisine and Special K, which became weight-watching staples primarily by stripping calories from people’s favorite foods.

Part of the problem: "Low-calorie" foods make people feel deprived. Now, people want to lose weight while still feeling satisfied. And they want to do it without foods they consider processed.

Kelly Pill has been dieting since her son was born in 1990. But the 54-year-old resident of Covina, Calif., made changes to her approach in recent years. She doesn’t eat Lean Cuisine microwavable meals as often because she doesn’t find them that filling. She also switched to Greek yogurt last year to get more protein.

"Regular yogurt is really thin," Pill said. "It was low in calories, but it wasn’t filling."

Stephen Colbert to replace Letterman on CBS late show

NEW YORK (AP) -- CBS moved swiftly Thursday to replace the retiring David Letterman with Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert, who will take over the "Late Show" next year and do battle with Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel for late-night television supremacy.

Colbert, 49, has been hosting "The Colbert Report" at 11:30 p.m. ET since 2005, in character as a fictional conservative talk-show host. The character will retire with "The Colbert Report."

"Simply being a guest on David Letterman’s show has been a highlight of my career," Colbert said. "I never dreamed that I would follow in his footsteps, though everyone in late night follows Dave’s lead."

Letterman, who turns 67 on Saturday, announced on his show last week that he would retire sometime in 2015, although he hasn’t set a date. CBS said Thursday that creative elements of Colbert’s new show, including where it will be based, will be announced later.

Mayors of New York and Los Angeles have already publicly urged the new "Late Show" host to choose their city. New York would appear to have the clear edge, since Colbert is already based in New York and CBS owns the Ed Sullivan Theater, where the "Late Show" has been taped since Letterman took over in 1993.