WASHINGTON — Charges against 14 individuals were announced Tuesday regarding three indictments in Puerto Rico for conspiracy to commit identification fraud, money laundering, aggravated identity theft and passport fraud in connection with their alleged roles in a scheme to traffic the identities of Puerto Rican U.S. citizens and their corresponding identity documents.
These charges were announced by the following agency heads: Assistant Attorney General Leslie R. Caldwell of the Justice Department's Criminal Division; U.S. Attorney Rosa Emilia Rodríguez-Vélez for the District of Puerto Rico; Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Thomas Winkowski of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which oversees Homeland Security Investigations (HSI); Chief Postal Inspector Guy Cottrell of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS); Chief Richard Weber of the Internal Revenue Service's Criminal Investigation Division (IRS-CID); and Director Bill Miller of the U.S. State Department's Diplomatic Security Service (DSS).
The multi-count indictments were returned by a federal grand jury Aug. 6. Since that time, five of the defendants have been found and arrested (four in Puerto Rico and one in Florida). They will be arraigned in federal court this week. Arrest warrants have been issued for the remaining defendants, who will make their initial appearances in federal court in the districts in which they are arrested.
According to the indictments, from at least July 2008 to April 2014, conspirators in the United States and Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, sold the identities of Puerto Rican U.S. citizens, corresponding Social Security cards, Puerto Rico birth certificates and other identification documents to illegal aliens and others residing in the United States.
Specifically, the indictments allege that individuals located in the Caguas, Rio Piedras and San Juan areas of Puerto Rico (suppliers) obtained Puerto Rican identities and corresponding identity documents. Conspirators in various locations throughout the United States (identity brokers) solicited customers for those identities and documents. The identity brokers allegedly sold Social Security cards and corresponding Puerto Rico birth certificates for prices ranging from $700 to $2,500 per set.
According to the indictment, the identity brokers ordered the identity documents from the suppliers by making coded telephone calls, including using terms such as “shirts,” “uniforms” or “clothes” to refer to identity documents. The suppliers generally requested that the identity brokers send payment for the documents through a money-transfer service to names provided by the suppliers. The conspirators frequently confirmed payee names and addresses, money transfer control numbers and trafficked identities via text messaging. The suppliers allegedly retrieved the payments from the money transfer service and then sent the identity documents to the brokers using express, priority or regular U.S. Mail.
According to the indictments, once the identity brokers received the identity documents, they delivered the documents to the customers and obtained the remaining payment from the customers. The brokers generally kept the second payments for themselves as profit. Some identity brokers allegedly assumed a Puerto Rican identity themselves, and used that identity in connection with the trafficking operation.
As alleged in the indictment, the customers generally obtained the identity documents to assume the identity of Puerto Rican U.S. citizens and to obtain additional identification documents, such as state driver's licenses. Some customers allegedly obtained the documents to commit financial fraud, and others attempted to obtain U.S. passports.
The indictments alleges that various identity brokers were operating in the following metropolitan areas: Indianapolis, Columbus and Seymour, Indiana; Aurora, Illinois; Bartow, Florida; Lawrenceville, Jonesboro and Norcross, Georgia; Salisbury, Maryland.; Columbus, Ohio; Lawrence and Springfield, Massachusetts; Grand Rapids, Michigan; Philadelphia; Houston; Guymon, Oklahoma; Huron, South Dakota; and Albertville, Alabama.
The charges announced Aug. 12 are the result of Operation Island Express II, an ongoing, nationally coordinated investigation led by HSI Chicago, in partnership with USPIS, DSS and IRS-CID offices in Chicago. This investigation was also coordinated with HSI San Juan. The Illinois Secretary of State Police provided substantial assistance. The HSI Assistant Attaché office in the Dominican Republic, the National Drug Intelligence Center - Document and Media Exploitation Branch and the International Organized Crime Intelligence and Operations Center (IOC-2) provided invaluable assistance, as well as various HSI, USPIS, DSS and IRS-CID offices around the country.
This case is being prosecuted by the Criminal Division's Organized Crime and Gang Section, with the assistance of the Criminal Division's Human Rights and Special Prosecution Section and the support of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Puerto Rico.
Anyone who believes that their identity may have been compromised by the crimes that are the subject of this investigation may contact the ICE toll-free hotline at 1-866-DHS-2ICE (1-866-347-2423) and its online tip form at www.ice.gov/tipline. The public is encouraged to report information about particular crimes in this case to the ICE tip line or website.
Anyone who believes that they have been a victim of identity theft, or wants information about preventing identity theft, may obtain helpful information and complaint forms on various government websites including the Federal Trade Commission ID theft website, www.ftc.gov/idtheft. Additional resources regarding identity theft can be found at http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/ovc/pubs/ID_theft/idtheft.html; http://www.ssa.gov/pubs/10064.html ; https://www.fbi.gov/investigate/white-collar-crime/identity-theft; and http://www.irs.gov/privacy/article/0,,id=186436,00.html.
An indictment is merely a formal accusation. Defendants are presumed innocent unless proven guilty in a court of law.