Polk deputies bust EBT fraud ring

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Polk County deputies arrested nearly a dozen people suspected of racking up thousands of dollars using fraudulently obtained government assistance EBT cards or credit cards, investigators said Friday.

Detectives launched their investigation last March, when a Dundee man discovered someone obtained a Credit One Bank credit card using his identity. Deputies determined the card was ordered by Stephanie Johnson Williford.

"It was her telephone number and some addresses associated with her that this whole investigation started on," said Scott Wilder, a spokesperson for the Polk County Sheriff's Office. "From that one instance, we were able to start pulling a series of those cases together."

During the next 10 months, investigators began looking into other similar crimes involving fraudulently obtained EBT or credit cards. Wilder said many of other suspects turned out to be Williford's family or friends, some of whom used her phone number on the application. Investigators said, in many cases, the criminals stole identities to fill out the rest of the information.

One of the identity theft victims turned out to be Davenport Police Chief Larry Holden, who was stunned to find out someone stole all of his information, including his social security number and birth date.

"If it can happen to me it can happen to anybody," Holden told FOX 13. "Shocked about how did they find my social security number? So I'm really curious to learn for myself and it'll definitely be something we pass on to our citizens of protect yourself against this."

Wilder said the fraud ring stretched between Polk and Highlands Counties.

"What we have video evidence and provable evidence right now is around 10,000 dollars of fraudulent activity," he said, adding investigators believe the actual amount might be much higher amount. "There's a huge number of transactions on a huge number of these cards that we just simply can't prove a case."

Wilder said it's shameful criminals would steal from a government program that helps low-income families.

"That's what's so terrible about this," he said. "You have folks down on their luck who need these funds for food and then you have these people who have found a way to steal and game the system and it's really, it's a darn shame. It's like stealing from poor people. Who does that?"

All of the suspects are facing fraud charges. Some are also facing identity theft charges.