|Hovhannes Harutyunyan, center, an Armenian who was living in Burbank, California, is one of the architects of a fraud ring that enlisted visa holders like Yermek Dossymbekov, left, and Alisher Omarov to commit crimes. If you have information on the case, contact the San Diego FBI at (858) 320-1800.
Crime Ring Recruited Short-Term Visa Holders
The recruitment pitch to students on short-term visas must have seemed irresistible: give us your good name and some help in our fraud scheme, and we’ll put money—potentially thousands of dollars—in your wallet before your return trip home.
In charges unsealed late last month in San Diego, FBI agents and their law enforcement partners named dozens of young visa holders from former Soviet-bloc countries who took the bait and became willing co-conspirators in a range of elaborate fraud schemes. In four separate indictments, a federal grand jury laid bare how a Los Angeles-based Armenian crime ring ran scams in L.A. and San Diego that relied on a steady tide of accomplices whose time was short in the U.S. While the crimes themselves were not especially novel—identity theft, bank fraud, tax fraud—the explicit recruitment of co-conspirators with expiring visas was a twist.
“The J-1 visa holders are a commodity in these cases,” said Special Agent Davene Butler, who works in our San Diego Division. She described how a few masterminds enlisted young accomplices to do much of the legwork in their fraud schemes—opening bank accounts and securing apartments and post office boxes to route proceeds from bogus tax returns, for example. By the time a scam came to light, the “foot soldiers” holding J-1 and F-1 visas—which allow foreigners to study and travel in the U.S. for brief periods—would be long gone. “They were essential in the schemes,” Butler said.
The charges announced on September 26 named 55 individuals and followed a two-year investigation led by the San Diego FBI, local authorities, and the IRS, which paid out more than $7 million in bogus tax refunds. About half of those charged were arrested last month in a nationwide sweep, but more than 25 remain at large, including 24 who are believed to have left the country. The FBI is asking for the public’s help locating some of the suspects, including one of the crime ring’s main architects, Hovhannes Harutyunyan, 34, an Armenian whose last known address was in Burbank, California.
The charges show four primary schemes. Here’s how they worked:
- Using stolen identities, the crime ring filed about 2,000 fraudulent tax returns claiming more than $20 million in refunds. J-1 students obtained addresses and bank accounts for the fraudulent refunds to be sent.
- Conspirators set up bank accounts and began writing checks back and forth to create a good transaction history, which banks rewarded by shortening or eliminating holds on deposited checks. Then the so-called “seed” accounts wrote bad checks to 60 “bust-out” accounts, which paid out more than $680,000.
- Conspirators obtained personal information about the identities and accounts of wealthy bank customers and disguised themselves as the account holders. They practiced forging documents and impersonating the account holders, and succeeded in obtaining $551,842. They laundered the money by purchasing gold with the stolen funds.
- Conspirators obtained pre-paid debit cards in the names of identity theft victims and opened bank accounts in the names of visa holders who sold their account information before leaving the U.S. They then filed more than 400 fraudulent tax returns seeking more than $3 million.
“This investigation involved multiple complex fraudulent schemes resulting in significant losses to financial institutions and American taxpayers,” said San Diego FBI Special Agent in Charge Daphne Hearn.
Agent Butler said the charges and arrests send a message that these schemes are not without consequences. Those who have already fled won’t find it easy to get back to the U.S. “And they won’t be able to tell their friends that they can come to the U.S., commit fraud, get some quick cash, and that nothing will happen to them,” she said.
If you have any information about these cases, please contact the FBI at (858) 320-1800 or online at tips.fbi.gov.
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