Arrests made in ID theft ring that stretches to Egypt
“At least 2 O.C. residents suspected of involvement in thefts, federal officials say.”
A total of 100 suspects, from Southern California to Egypt, have been named in a federal indictment unsealed today which authorities said describes an international and sophisticated identity theft ring that victimized thousands of people.
Federal officials said the case names the largest number of defendants ever charged in a cybercrime case, wrapping a two-year investigation involving law enforcement authorities in the United States and Egypt. Among those named in the indictment are two Garden Grove residents suspected of taking a part in the ring.
Fifty-three members of the alleged ring were identified in the indictment, and authorities said an additional 47 suspects have been identified by Egyptian authorities.
As of Wednesday morning, 33 of the 53 suspects identified in the United States have been taken into custody in Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Riverside, San Diego and Orange Counties, said Laura Eimiller, spokeswoman for the FBI. Arrests have also been made in Charlotte, N.C., and Las Vegas.
Ario Plogovii, 22, and Me Arlene Settle, 21, of Garden Grove, were among the 53 suspects identified in the indictment. Dubbed Operation Phish Phry, agents with the FBI initiated the investigation in 2007.
Known as phishing, the scheme involved Egyptian suspects who collected victims bank accounts by sending e-mails that appeared to be from official banks or credit card vendors. The e-mails directed victims to fake Web sites that also appeared to be legitimate, complete with bank logos legal disclaimers, and asked for the victims account number, password or other personal information. Suspects in Egypt then used the information to hack into personal accounts and contacted suspects in the United States, who would in turn transfer the funds to fraudulent accounts.
Criminally savvy groups recruit here and abroad to pool tactics and skills necessary to commit organized theft facilitated by the computer, said Keith Bolcar, acting assistant director in charge of the FBI in Los Angeles in a statement.
According to the indictment, Kenneth Joseph Lucas, 25, of Los Angeles, Nichole Michelle Merzi, 24, Oceanside, and Jonathan Preston Clark, 25, Los Angeles, coordinated the rings activities in the United States. Lucas, Merzi and Clark allegedly directed other suspects to recruit runners suspects who would set up bank accounts where the stolen funds could be stolen.
According to the indictment, Plogovii and Settle opened bank accounts in Bank of America branches where the money from victims would be transferred. That money would then be withdrawn, then split with those who had recruited them. The money would continue to be split and run up the organization’s ladder, according to the indictment, until it made its way back to Lucas, Merzi, Clark and other suspects in Egypt.
The international scheme, which includes suspects that have been arrested in Egypt, could have cost victims millions of dollars, Eimiller said.
All of the 53 people named in the indictment are charged with conspiracy to commit bank fraud and wire fraud, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. Some defendants are charged with bank fraud, aggravated identity theft, conspiracy to commit computer fraud, and domestic and international money laundering.
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