Woman indicted for posing as an immigration attorney in Tampa, Chicago

TAMPA, Fla. – Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Tampa is looking for additional potential victims of a Tampa woman indicted Tuesday on four counts of wire fraud and three counts of wrongfully using government seals in connection with a scheme in which she fraudulently represented herself as an immigration attorney to take money from victims for services she never provided in the Tampa and Chicago areas. This case was investigated by HSI and United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

According to the indictment, Erika Paola Intriago, 44, of Tampa, who is not a licensed attorney, fraudulently portrayed herself as an immigration attorney offering immigration-related services on social media targeting persons from Spanish-speaking countries seeking immigration-related services.

Victims retained and paid Intriago to represent them in immigration-related matters before USCIS and other agencies. Intriago is accused of then creating fraudulent letters, emails, receipts, documents, and communications to send her victims to falsely portray the records as legitimate communications with U.S. government agencies when in fact she never filed or completed the necessary immigration paperwork for which she was paid.

Intriago is also accused of threatening and intimidating victims who complained about her conduct by telling them that she would report their immigration status to U.S. immigration authorities, which Intriago claimed would result in the victims being deported.

If convicted, Intriago faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in federal prison for each count of wire fraud and up to five years in federal prison for each count of wrongfully using government seals.

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Treasurer accused of stealing $410,000 from charity for families of slain NYPD officers

The treasurer of a charity that benefits the families of New York Police Department officers who are killed in the line of duty was charged Thursday with stealing more than $410,000 from the fund.

Lorraine Shanley, 68, was charged by federal prosecutors in New York with bank fraud and aggravated identity theft. She will appear Thursday in court after prosecutors said she was stealing more than 20 percent of donations to the charity between 2010 to 2017 at least.

A person with direct knowledge of the matter confirmed to NBC News that Shanley acted as the treasurer for the nonprofit Survivors of the Shield.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York said that Shanley spent the money in a variety of ways — $29,000 for her grandchild’s private school tuition, $32,000 for personal dental expenses, and $25,000 for landscaping.

Shanley is also accused of using about $63,000 of the stolen money to pay for her son’s legal expenses related to criminal cases, prosecutors said.

Her son was reportedly served about three years in prison on drug charges from 2006 to 2009. He was also charged in 2014 with second-degree manslaughter and leaving the scene of an incident without reporting, resulting in death after he crashed his SUV in Manhattan, killing an activist, and fled. The manslaughter charges were dropped.

She also allegedly wrote $45,000 in checks to family members and other people, which she then endorsed herself and deposited into her own account. Prosecutors said Shanley, from Staten Island, also used $1,400 of the stolen money to buy Barbra Streisand tickets and $6,600 more on other event tickets.

According to court documents, 99 percent of the donations to Survivors of the Shield come from New York police officers, and on average, 5,500 NYPD employees donate to the charity each year.

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Mortgage Fraudster Caused Victims to Lose Out on Dream of Homeownership

The pitch sounded enticing: for an upfront fee, real estate “investor” Hasan Hussain promised to find clients the homes of their dreams or negotiate the loans of existing homeowners struggling to pay their mortgages.

Yet Hussain did neither of those things. He simply took his victims’ money—depriving them of their dreams of homeownership and defrauding them out of more than $1 million. Hussain targeted people for whom English was a second language, encouraging them to sign documents they did not understand.

“One woman gave him her life savings. It was her American dream to find a home, and he told her he’d help her,” said Special Agent Christina Grady, who investigated the case out of the FBI’s Boston Field Office. “But he never followed through on any promises to anyone. He would collect money—from people who didn’t have much money—and pocket it.”

Not only did he target vulnerable homeowners or would-be homeowners but Hussain also had a knack for winning his victims’ trust, becoming “like part of their family,” Grady said.

Hussain, who began his years-long fraud scheme in Rhode Island in 2009 while on supervised release for similar crimes in Massachusetts, used a variety of tactics to defraud his victims, which got more complex over time as he acquired more homes.

For example, he convinced a family struggling to pay their mortgage to move out of their home and into one his other properties; he then rented their home out, collecting rent from the tenants without paying the homeowner’s mortgage.

Another tactic involved convincing homeowners that he was trying to negotiate with their lender on their behalf. Instead he would damage their property to decrease its value, and once the home was damaged, he’d buy the home in a short sale—a term for a property being sold at a price lower than what is owed on the mortgage.

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Former FBI Director Webster Assists Investigation

The heavily accented caller who promised William Webster a grand sweepstakes prize of $72 million and a new Mercedes Benz had done most of his homework on his potential fraud target.

“I know that you was [sic] a judge, you was a lawyer, you was in the U.S. Navy,” the caller told his elderly mark. “I do your background check. You are a big man.”

What the caller, Keniel Thomas, 29, of Jamaica, missed was possibly the most salient detail about his intended victim, who was 90 years old the time: William Webster had served as director of both the FBI and the CIA, and so had a pretty good radar for pernicious criminal schemes—in this case, a Jamaican lottery scam.

Thomas’ persistent calls in 2014 to Webster and his wife, Lynda, followed the familiar arc of scams that target the elderly: The caller promises riches but requires some form of payment to move the process forward. The caller demands more and more, and then resorts to intimidation when the cooperation tapers off.

In the Websters’ case, the former judge was told he had to pay $50,000 to get his prize. When the money wasn’t forthcoming, the frequent calls escalated to scary threats, which led the couple to contact the FBI.

“I don’t know how the conversation turned sour,” said Webster, 95, director of the FBI for a decade beginning in 1978. “But it did. And at that point, he shifted gears. Instead of sweet talk, he began to threaten her.”

In one expletive-filled recorded message left on the Websters’ phone, Thomas threatened to kill them and burn down their house if he didn’t get what he wanted. “You live at a very lonely place,” he said. “And the moment you arrive, I’m gonna put a shot in your head.”

Special agents from the FBI’s Washington Field Office enlisted the Websters’ help in nabbing the caller by recording their phone conversations to build a case and develop a clear picture of the scheme. The legwork ultimately led to Thomas’ arrest in 2017 and his sentencing last month in federal court in Washington, D.C., to nearly six years in prison. It also revealed that Thomas and his relatives in Jamaica had successfully scammed others in the U.S. out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

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Three Sentenced in Public Corruption Case

An Alabama legislator who was bribed by a corporation to represent the company’s interests—instead of his constituents’—is now serving prison time, and the two men who paid him will be serving time as well.

Former state representative Oliver Robinson, Jr., 58, agreed to a community outreach contract with a law firm that represented Drummond Company, Inc., a Birmingham, Alabama-based coal company. The contract paid Robinson $375,00 over two years. While the contract itself was not illegal, Drummond executive David Roberson and lawyer Joel Gilbert used it as a bribe to induce Robinson to take official action as a state legislator promoting the interests of the company he was secretly representing—a violation of public corruption law.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had previously informed a Drummond-owned company of its potential responsibility for environmental pollution in North Birmingham—a liability that could cost the company tens of millions of dollars. So Drummond, along with its attorneys, started a public relations campaign to oppose the EPA’s actions. The company and its representatives told local residents not to allow the EPA to test their soil and that their housing values would plummet if the EPA placed the community on its Superfund National Priorities List. Part of the overall strategy was the outreach contract with Robinson to help the company get those messages out.

In early February 2015, Robinson signed a letter (secretly authored by Gilbert) in his official legislative capacity to the Alabama Environmental Management Commission against the EPA’s actions. Later that month, Robinson signed the contract and received his first check from Gilbert’s law firm for $14,000. Four days later, he represented Drummond’s position at an Alabama Environmental Management Commission public meeting, where he claimed to be representing his constituents and did not disclose his financial relationship with the coal company or law firm.

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Fraudsters Told Prisoners’ Families They Could Buy Sentence Reductions

The sales pitch was enticing: Families with loved ones in prison could hire investigators to provide information to the government that would result in a reduction in their family members’ sentences.

It sounded too good to be true—because it was.

A group of fraudsters who made this pitch to more than 20 inmates’ families were paid more than $4 million, but neither the prisoners nor their relatives ever received any benefit.

It is possible under certain circumstances for incarcerated individuals to get a sentence reduction for providing information to the government, but they never have to pay for that. Also, those cases typically involve an incarcerated person providing information regarding their own co-defendants.

Alvin Warrick and several co-conspirators set up a company called Private Services in Texas, but the word—and the scam—quickly spread across the country. Warrick and his associates communicated primarily through email and phone and used pseudonyms in an attempt to cover their tracks. They told the families their investigators were making undercover drug buys and that those “investigations” would lead to sentence reductions for their family members. They repeatedly lied to their clients, telling them that the investigations were ongoing and working their way through the legal system.

“That is just not how the system works, but many of these families didn’t know that,” said Special Agent Tracy Masington, who investigated this case out of the FBI’s Houston Field Office along with the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG).

Masington noted that at least one victim was in another country trying to get his son out of prison. Another victim was an elderly woman who, on her deathbed, made her daughter promise she’d continue paying Private Services to try to free her son from prison after her death.

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Cryptocurrency Fraudster Sentenced

Even in the world of virtual currency, where value and possession exist largely in the digital realm, laws still apply and the repercussion of breaking them are very real.

The victims of Homero Joshua Garza’s virtual currency scam lost more than $9 million, and Garza will spend 21 months in prison followed by three years of supervised release after pleading guilty to one count of wire fraud. He has also been ordered to pay restitution to his victims.

In charging documents, prosecutors contend Garza founded and operated several Connecticut-based businesses (GAW Miners, ZenMiner, and ZenCloud) between 2014 and 2015 that sold bitcoin-mining hardware, offered shares in a virtual currency mining operation, and created and sold a virtual currency called PayCoin. None of these businesses would have been illegal if conducted properly, but through a series of misleading and false statements about his companies’ capabilities, partnerships, and financial backing, Garza fraudulently drew investors to his enterprises and eventually resorted to Ponzi-scheme tactics to delay detection of his fraud.

“Garza got into this market at the right time,” said Special Agent Mark Munster, who investigated this case from the FBI’s New Haven Field Office. “The interest and enthusiasm for these currencies was high, and he was able to market himself and the business very effectively. The problem was that much of what Garza was marketing was a lie.”

The first iteration of Garza’s companies sold the computer equipment virtual currency enthusiasts use to mine, or solve the complex equations required to attain a bitcoin or other virtual currency. Munster said Garza’s business started as a legitimate operation with a clever hook—he wanted to make it easier for people who didn’t have a technical background to access cryptocurrencies.

The initial currency-mining equipment business turned into one that offered to purchase a currency miner on the customer’s behalf and set it up at the GAW Miners data center. The customer could then direct the miner’s activities and reap its profits. Garza then moved into selling shares, or “hashlets,” that represented a percentage of the profits being made by his company’s purportedly robust bitcoin mining efforts. These hashlets, Garza assured investors, would always be profitable.

Mining bitcoins at the volume needed to generate the type of value Garza was promising requires a staggering amount of computing power. These powerful computers are expensive, as is the electricity required to run them. “There were data centers,” said Munster, “but not nearly the capacity that they were representing.” Without the actual infrastructure to support the shares he was selling, returns fell far short of what was promised to investors, and Garza began using new investments in the company to pay returns to others.

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Prominent Gallery Owner Sentenced for Defrauding Clients

The fine art world trades largely on names—names like da Vinci, Picasso, and Cézanne that can make the value of a canvas soar, and the names of dealers and gallery owners who operate in this rarified air by virtue of their own reputation and renown. Ezra Chowaiki was one of those dealers, and his gallery on New York’s Park Avenue catered to art collectors, buyers, and sellers from around the globe.

But in September 2018, Chowaiki was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison for carrying out what the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York called “an elaborate scheme to defraud art dealers and collectors of millions of dollars.” Chowaiki’s name and his word, as it turned out, were not worth much.

According to an online biography, the company Chowaiki founded with partners in 2004 “established itself as a prominent gallery managing the acquisition and sale of art by Impressionist, Modern, Post-War, and Contemporary masters.” The gallery was also known for hosting exhibitions of major works.

“Chowaiki had been in the art world for a while and had completed plenty of legitimate deals,” said Special Agent Christopher McKeogh with the FBI’s Art Crime Team in the New York Field Office. “Most of the illegal activity was relatively recent.” But McKeogh stressed that once it began, “the schemes and thefts were coming at a fast and furious clip.”

When the investigation reached the FBI in November 2017, Chowaiki’s gallery had just filed for bankruptcy, and the New York Police Department was already identifying and interviewing victims of bad deals. The FBI became involved because of the expertise of its Art Crime Team as well as the interstate and international nature of the crimes. The biggest concern: 25 stolen masterworks by Marc Chagall, Piet Mondrian, Alexander Calder, Fernand Léger, and others.

“The case came with a true sense of urgency,” said McKeogh. “We needed to get the scheme under control and get the artwork back before it changed hands again and disappeared.”

According to court documents and the case agent, Chowaiki was actively carrying out both frauds and thefts. McKeogh said the frauds usually involved Chowaiki overselling the value of a painting. For example, he would reach out to an individual with whom he had a relationship and offer that person the opportunity to buy a share of a work, claiming it could be resold for a quick profit. He would then offer the same deal to a second person and then to a third. Sometimes they were paintings in which Chowaiki had no actual control or ownership stake, but he would collect more than 100 percent of their value. “It was like me selling you a piece of the Brooklyn Bridge,” said McKeogh.

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A Tennessee clinic swindled the military out of $65M. This is how it got caught

CATHEDRAL CITY, Calif. — Bill Schneid stood in his home office, holding a package of skin cream worth more than gold. He didn’t know exactly what he had stumbled on, but he was pretty sure it was illegal.

It was March 2015. A few weeks before, Schneid, 72, a curmudgeonly private investigator, had been snooping around Southern California military bases when a Marine he knew mentioned he had a strange source of side income.

The Marine was being paid to get medicine he didn’t need. A Tennessee doctor he had never met wrote him a medicinal cream prescription, which was being filled by a pharmacy in Utah. The military covered the bill and the Marine got a cash kickback from somebody. When the creams arrived in the mail, the Marine didn’t actually use them.

He was in it for the money, not the medicine, after all.

Suspicious, Schneid launched a ruse to investigate, persuading the Marine to reroute the shipments to his house. Soon, Schneid received a shoebox-sized parcel that held several tubes of cream about the same size and consistency as sunscreen that was supposedly used to treat pain and scars.

This medicine had been prescribed, supplied and delivered seemingly for no reason at all. Nobody needed it. Nobody wanted it. So what was the point?

“After the second delivery, I realized this was some kind of fraud,” Schneid said in an interview. “I believed there were about a dozen Marines involved, and they were being actively recruited to be prescribed this cream.

“It was a conspiracy, and it was growing, but I just didn’t know how huge.”

Today, court records make clear the enormity of the conspiracy. The scheme that Schneid stumbled upon in 2015 stretched from California to Tennessee, involving people and companies from at least four states. In Tennessee, two doctors and a nurse practitioner have pleaded guilty to defrauding a military insurance program, called Tricare, out of $65 million. At least two more suspects are still facing charges. Federal prosecutors also are attempting to seize swaths of East Tennessee farmland, a strip mall, and a large estate they argue was purchased with health care fraud profits.

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9 Defendants Charged in Chicago in International Investigation Targeting

CHICAGO — Seven Chicago-area residents are among nine individuals arrested in the United States and Nigeria as part of an international investigation into online “romance scams” and “mystery shopper” schemes.

During the Chicago-based investigation, dubbed “Operation Gold Phish,” law enforcement identified a variety of cyber-enabled fraud schemes allegedly carried out by conspirators in the U.S. and Nigeria.

One of the alleged schemes involved “romance scams,” in which a conspirator builds trust with a victim through a purported online romance before convincing the victim to send money to a predetermined recipient.

The conspirators initially contacted victims online via applications and websites, including Match.com, Facebook, and Instagram, the complaint states.

Another alleged cyber-enabled fraud involved a “mystery shopper” scheme, in which conspirators fraudulently offered victims opportunities to work as a mystery shopper and receive commissions for evaluating retailers.

The victim received a check through the U.S. mail with instructions to deposit it in a personal bank account, withdraw the money in cash, and wire it to a third party.

The check turned out to be fake, and the victims were defrauded of the wired money, the charges allege.

A criminal complaint filed Dec. 4, 2018, in U.S. District Court in Chicago charged nine defendants with conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

Arrests were recently carried out in Illinois, Texas, and Nigeria, and all of the defendants are now in law enforcement custody.

The Nigerian Economic and Financial Crimes Commission is conducting a related investigation of other individuals in Nigeria.

The U.S. charges were announced by John R. Lausch, Jr., United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois; Jeffrey S. Sallet, Special Agent-in-Charge of the Chicago office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation; and Craig Goldberg, Inspector-in-Charge of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service in Chicago.

Valuable assistance was provided by the Nigerian Economic and Financial Crimes Commission. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Peter S. Salib and Charles W. Mulaney represent the government.

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