Fifty-five people were indicted last week in a massive identity theft and tax-fraud scheme, but 33 suspects are still at large, many of whom are no longer in the country.
That’s part of what makes this notable: The theft of more than 2,000 identities and $7 million was carried out by foreign nationals staying in the U.S. on student, work or travel visas. Knowing these visitors from former Soviet nations would soon return home, the ringleaders had them set up post office boxes and bank accounts in San Diego, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Maryland to receive the fraudulent tax returns. A Wells Fargo employee in San Diego is accused of setting up some of those accounts.
Arthur Grigorian, 32, Ernest Soloian, 30, and Hovhannes Harutyunyan, 34, have been named the leaders by federal prosecutors. The three are Armenian or Armenian-Americans, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune, and they reside in Los Angeles County. The foreign nationals they recruited mostly came from Russia, Kazakhstan or Turkmenistan. Many have returned to their home countries and most have not been arrested.
The plan was elaborate and “one of the most sophisticated operations we’ve ever seen,” Anthony Orlando told the Union-Tribune. Orlando is an assistant special agent in charge for the Internal Revenue Service in San Diego.
The players were difficult to trace because they used and frequently switched prepaid cellphones, as well as took measures to disguise the locations of their computers when filing the false returns.
The leaders are also accused of orchestrating a scheme in which they coached and gave makeovers to accomplices so they could go into banks, pose as wealthy Wells Fargo account holders and withdraw large sums of money. These impostors sported new haircuts, practiced forging signatures and rehearsed answering questions without an accent.
Another indictment described a check-writing scam that cost Bank of America $600,000.
A two-year investigation led to the 22 arrests last week, and searches across the nation yielded $13,000 cash and four handguns.
Filing false tax returns is a popular identity theft crime, with many criminals trying to file taxes with the stolen identity before its rightful owner does. Victims of this sort of crime often discover the problem after they file their taxes.
While doing taxes early isn’t a bad idea, it’s important that consumers also regularly check their credit reports and credit scores for any suspicious activity. Perhaps most important, those who suspect they are a victim of identity theft need to report it right away to avoid further damage.