Below is a statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida.

A Florida woman was sentenced today to two years in prison for a scheme to file false tax returns and to two years in prison for an unrelated online romance scam. The two sentences are to run concurrently with each other.

According to court documents and statements made in court related to the tax scheme, Iona Coates owned and operated Bits & Bytes Accounting Services Inc., which provided tax preparation and bookkeeping services. Between 2015 and 2020, Coates claimed $228,788 in tax refunds on her individual federal income tax returns by falsely reporting that taxes had been withheld from her income and had been paid to the IRS. Coates further enriched herself by creating nearly 20 sham entities for the sole purpose of filing false tax returns that claimed fuel tax credits. Between 2017 and 2019, Coates prepared and filed 35 such returns.

According to court documents and statements made in court regarding the online romance scheme, in 2020, Coates met two individuals online through a dating website. She subsequently provided them with her bank account information and began receiving money into her account from victims of the scheme. She sent the money she received to them. In December 2020, U.S. Secret Service agents met with Coates and explained that she was acting as a “money mule” in an online romance scheme. As the agents described, the individuals, acting as fake suitors on dating websites, convinced victims to send money to Coates’s bank account. The Secret Service advised Coates to cease participation in the scheme, as the individuals were using her bank account to facilitate their theft. Coates, however, soon thereafter began acting as a money mule for another online romance scammer. Between December 2020 and September 2021, she received $229,376.26 into her bank accounts from victims of the scheme and sent the money to the scammer.

In addition to the term of imprisonment, U.S. District Judge Brian Davis ordered Coates to serve a total of three years of supervised release for both schemes. Judge Davis also ordered Coates to pay approximately $186,288 in restitution to the United States related to the tax charges and $229,376.26 in restitution to the victims of the romance scheme.

Acting Deputy Assistant Attorney General Stuart M. Goldberg of the Justice Department’s Tax Division and U.S. Attorney Roger B. Handberg for the Middle District of Florida made the announcement.

IRS Criminal Investigation investigated the tax scheme and the U.S. Secret Service investigated the online romance scheme.

Trial Attorneys Kevin Schneider and Wilson Stamm of the Justice Department’s Tax Division and Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin C. Frein for the Middle District of Florida prosecuted the tax case. Assistant U.S. Attorney Frein prosecuted the online romance scheme case.

Matt McCarthy