Feds accuse Venezuelan ring of stealing $800,000 in U.S. stimulus checks during pandemic
(Miami Herald) – A ring of Venezuelans who live in South Florida and Mexico have stolen more than $800,000 in U.S. government stimulus checks from people who lost their jobs or struggled financially during the COVID-19 pandemic, federal authorities say.
In the first case of its kind in Florida, federal prosecutors have charged one Venezuelan, Jesus Felipe Linares Andrade, with conspiring to steal government money along with identity theft. The Venezuelan man didn’t act alone.
As many as four other “co-conspirators” originally from Venezuela could be added to an indictment, federal prosecutors in South Florida say. Linares and the unnamed collaborators are accused of stealing hundreds of stimulus checks issued by the U.S. Treasury and then cashing them by using “fraudulent” identification documents, the indictment says.
Linares, 34, who lives in South Florida, was arrested in May and is being held without bond. He pleaded not guilty. His defense attorney, David Scott Markus, declined to comment about the case Tuesday.
Since the coronavirus pandemic started spreading in March of 2020, Congress has approved a series of U.S. Treasury stimulus checks totaling close to $400 billion to help people who are unemployed, working part-time or making a certain lower income that qualifies them for the benefits.
Linares was caught in an FBI undercover operation in which two confidential informants interacted with him and four others in the alleged ring. The members somehow stole the checks in South Florida and Mexico, and then they fabricated IDs to correspond with the names of actual U.S. taxpayers.
In the first transaction in January, an FBI informant met in the parking lot at the Aventura Mall with one of the four co-conspirators to discuss cashing about 30 Treasury checks totaling $36,000, according to a criminal affidavit filed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Berger. Each of the checks was for $1,200 and addressed to different U.S. taxpayers with addresses in Mexico. The informant represented that he would cash the checks for a 30 percent fee.
While the stolen government checks were real, the FBI did not actually cash them as part of the sting operation and instead provided funds that were represented as proceeds from the cashing of the checks, according to the affidavit. Some of the money was electronically transferred to Linares through an application called Zelle.
The affidavit, written by a Treasury Department investigator, summarizes a string of illicit transactions through the winter and spring.
In April, Linares met with the two FBI informants at the Miami International Mall in Doral to discuss picking up a UPS package at a post office box in Deerfield Beach. It contained 416 Treasury checks worth about $249,000. Linares made arrangements to pick up the package in mid-April and then put it in the trunk of the car being driven by the two informants, according to the affidavit.
Linares requested $2,000 from the informants, and the FBI sent the money through a “controlled” bank account to Linares’ Zelle account.
Later that month, Linares talked again with the two informants about coordinating the receipt of about $34,476 in “laundered funds” from stimulus checks as well as the delivery of an additional 226 Treasury checks worth about $135,000, the affidavit says. Linares then contacted one of the informants in an email about sending identification documents to be used to convert the stolen stimulus checks to cash.
At the end of April, Linares met with both of the informants at the Miami International Mall.
“During the meeting, Linares placed an envelope in the vehicle containing over $150,000 in stolen U.S. Treasury checks and over 30 identification documents,” according to the affidavit. “The identification documents consisted of copies of driver’s licenses, including Florida driver’s licenses. Some of the names on the driver’s license matched the names on the checks.”
At the time, the affidavit says, Linares had a photocopy of a driver’s license in the name of “J.H.” matching a U.S. Treasury check made out to the same person for $600.