A group of New York City fraudsters allegedly managed to steal $19 million worth of iPhones through a sprawling false identity scheme that hit cellphone stores across the country.
According to a newly-unsealed complaint filed by federal prosecutors, the Bronx-based enterprise acquired thousands of devices at little to no cost by posing as legitimate accountholders eligible for an upgrade. To do so, the group would hack into their victims' cell phone accounts and add themselves as "authorized users," prosecutors allege, before using fake IDs and counterfeit debit cards to cover their tracks.
"The Fraud Ring frequently obtained new phones or upgrade phones by paying only a small fee in the store, while charging the vast majority of the purchase price to existing customers' accounts, without their consent or knowledge," according to the federal complaint. "Thus, the scheme's victims include (1) customers, whose identities were stolen and/or whose accounts were accessed without authorization; and (2) cellphone service providers, which typically bore financial losses inflicted by the scheme."
The scam—led by "Top Dogs" based in the Bronx—was prolific, with "runners" allegedly hitting cellphone stores in 34 states over the last seven years. During a single week in early 2017, one participant allegedly managed to pilfer $25,000 worth of iPhones. After obtaining the stolen devices, the runners would ship them back to the city, where they were sold on the black market.
Police were first informed of the operation in 2014 by an employee at an overnight shipping center in the Bronx, who said he noticed a suspicious number of packages arriving from out-of-state, each of which had a New York City return address. Details of the alleged scam were further exposed by a cooperating witness, who joined the group in 2013 and went on a total of 18 trips. He said he was paid $100 for each stolen iPhone.
The complaint identifies six defendants involved in the scam: Gerald Vasquez, Gary Bierd, Irvin Castillo, Daubriel Disla, Wilkin De Los Santos, and Jose Vargas. They are charged with felony mail fraud, conspiracy to commit mail fraud, and aggravated identity theft.
The U.S. Attorney's Office did not immediately respond to Gothamist's inquiries.