A total of 111 people have been arrested in a Queens-based identity theft and counterfeit credit card operation that included bank tellers, restaurant workers and store employees, the Queens district attorney said.
The bust was the largest identity theft takedown in U.S. history, Queens DA Richard Brown said.
So far, police have arrested 86 individuals who were allegedly involved in the operation, while another 25 are being sought, the DA said.
“These weren’t holdups at gunpoint, but the impact on victims was the same,” city Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said. “They were robbed.”
The operation was made up of five organized forged credit card and identity theft rings that were based in Queens, but had ties in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
Members of the operation are accused of stealing the personal credit information of thousands of Americans and Europeans and costing them more than $13 million in losses over a period of 16 months, the DA said.
Nearly 25 of the defendants are charged in six indictments with participating in burglaries and robberies throughout Queens.
In one instance, four defendants have been charged with conspiring to rob a Flushing Savings Bank in Forest Hills, while another five have been charged with stealing more than $95,000 worth of cargo, which included power tool accessories and drill bits, from John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Seven defendants are accused of stealing $850,000 worth of computer equipment from Long Island City’s Citigroup Building, the DA said.
“This is by far the largest—and certainly among the most sophisticated – identity theft and credit card fraud cases that law enforcement has come across,” Brown said. “Credit card fraud and identity theft are two of the fastest growing crimes in the United States, afflicting millions of victims and costing billions of dollars in losses to consumers, businesses and financial institutions.”
A number of the defendants busted in the ring are alleged to have gone on nationwide shopping sprees, stayed at five-star hotels, rented luxury automobiles and private jets and purchased tens of thousands of dollars worth of electronics, handbags and jewelry with forged credit cards, Brown said.
It could take years for the identity theft victims to repair their credit ratings, he said.
More than 90 of the defendants have been indicted on charges of enterprise corruption under the state’s Organized Crime Control Act.
The crime ring operated between May 2010 and September 2011, defrauding thousands of customers and financial institutions, including American Express, Visa, MasterCard and Discover, the DA said.
The defendants are alleged to have fraudulently obtained credit card account numbers to manufacture forged credit and identification cards.
Once the cards were created, the defendants allegedly sent out teams of “shoppers” on purchasing expeditions in New York, Florida, Massachusetts, Los Angeles and other U.S. cities, according to the indictments.
Then, the operation would fence or resell the items on the Internet.
During one instance, members of the operation allegedly rented a private jet to take them from New York to Florida and, in another instance, members stayed at Miami’s The Royal Palm and Puerto Rico’s El Conquistor, a high-end private villa.
An investigation into the group began in October 2009 when officers assigned to the NYPD’s Identity Theft Squad looked into an operation being run out of South Ozone Park.
During that investigation, thousands of conversations in Russian, Mandarin and Arabic were intercepted, the DA said.
The recent indictments charge that Imran Khan, Ali Khweiss, Anthony Martin, Sanjay Deowsarran and Amar Singh were the “bosses” of the operation, Brown said.
Individuals working at bars or restaurants in Russia, Libya, Lebanon, China would use skimming devices to swipe a customer’s credit card information.
The stolen account numbers would be sent to a “manufacturer,” who recoded the information onto the magnetic strips of blank credit cards and then created new cards. They are also alleged to have created fake government documents, such as driver’s licenses to match the credit cards, the DA said.
The enterprise targeted specific malls to carry out their shopping sprees, including the Queens Center Mall, the Americana Mall, the Roosevelt Field Mall and several other centers.
According to the indictments, some store owners and employees aided the shoppers, while one defendant, attorney Susan Persaud, allegedly advised the enterprise on how to evade law enforcement.
One defendant, security firm owner Nelson Feliciano, allegedly allowed members of the group to create a counterfeit credit card using his business account information, which was then used to make $50,000 in purchases, the DA said. He is accused of claiming the charges were fraudulent and that he was an identity theft victim.
Additional charges brought against the defendants include identity theft, grand larceny, criminal possession of a forged instrument, petit larceny, criminal facilitation, conspiracy, criminal possession of stolen property and robbery.