WORCESTER, Mass. — A Rhode Island woman pleaded guilty in federal court Thursday to federal wire fraud charges in connection with a scheme to defraud legal and illegal immigrants that netted more than $800,000.
This plea resulted from an investigation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS).
Patria Zuniga, 53, of Woonsocket, Rhode Island, pleaded guilty to eight counts of wire fraud. Zuniga’s sentencing hearing is scheduled for May 24, 2016.
From 2009 through 2012, Zuniga targeted immigrant victims telling them that she worked for U.S. immigration authorities and could assist them in lawfully obtaining U.S. permanent resident status. The victims typically had no lawful status or only had temporary legal status in the United States.
Zuniga’s services were initially offered for $8,000 to $14,000; however, after the victims made the payments, Zuniga extorted additional funds by, among other things, threatening to have them deported if they refused to pay.
Victim payments were initially made in cash, but later in the scheme Zuniga accepted money via cash deposits made directly into designated bank accounts (including accounts owned by her two daughters), money orders, and bank and Western Union wire transfers. In total, victims paid more than $800,000 over the course of the fraud.
In furtherance of her scheme, Zuniga employed a variety of tools to create the appearance of legitimacy in front of the victims. For example, in order to prove that she could in fact deliver the promised immigration benefits, Zuniga showed her victims photocopies of immigration documents with their names and photographs on them, which she had forged. Zuniga also routinely arranged for victims to travel to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Offices in Boston purportedly to take receipt of immigration documents. Upon arrival, victims waited for hours only to have Zuniga contact them and cancel the non-existent appointments.
Zuniga’s daughters, Alba Peña and Indranis Rocheford, have also been charged in connection with the fraud. They are scheduled for trial in April 2016.
Zuniga faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison to be followed by three years of supervised release and a fine of $250,000 for each of the eight counts of wire fraud.