CASE CONCLUDES WITH INTERNATIONAL IDENTITY THIEF
SENTENCED TO 25 YEARS IN CUSTODY
Joanne Tragas, also known as Giannoula Kolomvakou, 44, a dual citizen of Greece and Canada, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Thomas L. Ludington on April 27, 2011 to 300 months (25 years) in custody, to be followed by five years of supervised release. Tragas was also ordered to pay over $2.1 million in restitution and to forfeit assorted property, including a home in Cape Coral, Florida.
United States Attorney Barbara McQuade announced the sentence today, joined by Jeffrey A. Frost, Special Agent in Charge of the U.S. Secret Service for Michigan.
The sentence was imposed as a result of Tragas’s convictions for various offenses relating to her participation in an international identity theft conspiracy. On November 5, 2010, a jury in U.S. District Court in Bay City, Michigan found Tragas guilty of one count of participating in an access device fraud conspiracy, seven counts of causing others to engage in interstate travel to launder money in furtherance of the access device fraud scheme, one count of bank fraud, and two counts of wire fraud. In pronouncing the sentence for Tragas, Judge Ludington noted that Tragas may care for her family and friends, but nevertheless caused considerable harm to others through her participation in the access device fraud scheme.
The investigation which led to Tragas’s convictions started with loss prevention investigators at the Meijer store on Tittabawassee Road in Saginaw County, Michigan. That store, as well as other stores in southern Michigan, were repeatedly targeted by “street level” members of the conspiracy who used gift cards encoded with stolen credit and debit card information to make purchases. Those fraudulent purchases resulted in losses to the financial institutions that issued the valid credit or debit card accounts, and difficulties for the holders of the legitimate card accounts. In December of 2008, detectives from the Saginaw County Sheriff’s Department, pursuing information provided by the Meijer loss prevention investigators, arrested three people who had again “hit” the Tittabawassee Road Meijer store. The local authorities turned the matter over to the U.S. Secret Service in Saginaw, and the federal investigation began.
Ultimately, the Secret Service’s investigation moved from the street level participants in the conspiracy, to the persons who supplied them with the falsely encoded cards, then to the Detroit-area residents who purchased the stolen credit and debit card information from Tragas and encoded that information onto gift cards. The encoders and crews of shoppers they employed traveled across the U.S. making purchases with the fraudulent cards. The average purchase was over $1000 per transaction. The investigation culminated in the arrest of Tragas in Florida while she was in the United States on a tourist visa.
Evidence obtained by the Secret Service during its extensive investigation revealed that Tragas obtained the stolen credit and debit card information form sources outside of the United States, and sold the information to customers across the U.S. and internationally via the Internet. Her gross receipts through her participation in the fraud scheme was at least $1 million. Records obtained during the investigation and presented to the jury at trial showed that Tragas received the means to collect more than half a million dollars in wired funds, mostly through Western Union, and forwarded part of that to people outside of the United States who are believed to be her sources for the stolen credit and debit account information. All were ordered to pay joint and several restitution, as was Tragas.
Twelve Michigan residents were also charged with participation in the access device fraud scheme and pled guilty in U.S. District Court in Bay City, Michigan. The sentences received by those defendants ranged from probation to multi-year prison sentences, depending on the extent of their involvement in the scheme, their prior criminal records, if any, and their cooperation with the Secret Service’s investigation.
United States Attorney McQuade commended the U.S. Secret Service for its successful investigation and prosecution in this complex case. USA McQuade and SAIC Frost also thanked the many loss prevention investigators from various merchants, including Meijer, Wal-Mart, Macy’s, Sam’s Club, Giant Eagle, and Kmart; the many financial institutions, including Chase Bank, Navy Federal Credit Union, Bank of America, CitiBank USA and Canada, HSBC, Bancorp South, Wells Fargo, USAA Bank, Capital One, US Bank, Boeing Employee Credit Union, President’s Choice Financial, and American Express; and also the many law enforcement agencies, including the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, U.S Customs and Border Patrol, Saginaw County Sheriff’s Department, Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Department, Bay County Sheriff’s Department, Tecumseh Police Department, and the Michigan State Police, for their assistance in the investigation. Special appreciation was also given to forensic examiners from the Secret Service and Carnegie Melon Institution for their work on the various computer devices recovered during the investigation. The prosecution was handled by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Bay City.