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Justice News

Department of Justice
U.S. Attorney’s Office
Central District of California

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Thursday, April 21, 2016

10 Defendants Charged in International Money Laundering and Identity Theft Scheme Involving $14 Million in Fraudulent Tax Refunds

Hundreds of Fake Identities and Fraudulent Armenian and Georgian Passports Used To Open Bank Accounts and Mail Drops across Southern California

            SANTA ANA, California – Federal authorities late yesterday arrested five out of 10 defendants who have been charged in identity thefts cases related to an international money laundering scheme that laundered millions of dollars in fraudulently obtained federal income tax refunds.

            The criminal complaints filed Tuesday in United States District Court and unsealed yesterday charge the 10 defendants with participating in a money laundering ring that used hundreds of bank accounts opened with stolen identities to launder millions of dollars in fraudulently obtained tax refunds. According to the affidavits supporting the complaints, the Internal Revenue Service has identified approximately 7,000 fraudulent tax returns related to this scheme that cumulatively sought about $38 million in refunds. The IRS issued about $14 million in refunds, and the money was deposited into and laundered through bank accounts used in this scheme. The fraudulent tax returns were filed and the bank accounts were opened with personal identifying information that had been stolen from thousands of victims.

            “Stolen identity refund fraud schemes are a growing problem that victimize both the United States government and individuals who have tax returns fraudulently filed in their names,” said United States Attorney Eileen M. Decker. “We are devoting more resources to combat this problem and will continue to pursue organizations that engage in this type of fraud. The cases unsealed today demonstrate that we will dismantle these criminal operations and stop schemes that target innocent Americans and steal taxpayers' money.”

The 10 defendants, each of whom was named in a separate criminal complaint, allegedly used fraudulent foreign passports to commit identity theft by opening numerous bank accounts and mailbox addresses with the stolen identities. According to the criminal complaints, they used fraudulent passports from the Republic of Armenia, Georgia and the Czech Republic that had the names of identity theft victims but the defendants’ photographs.

“Investigating refund fraud and identity theft is a top priority for IRS Criminal Investigation,” stated Anthony J. Orlando, acting Special Agent in Charge for IRS Criminal Investigation. “Stealing identities and filing false tax returns is a serious crime that hurts innocent taxpayers. Today's arrests should serve as a strong warning to those who are considering similar conduct. Law enforcement is serious about investigating these crimes and holding accountable those who defraud the government.”

“The complexity and audacity of this scheme were truly astounding and illustrate the lengths to which fraudsters will go to game the system for financial gain,” said Mark Selby, acting Special Agent in Charge for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations in Los Angeles. “Identity theft and tax fraud result in billions of dollars in losses every year in this country and cause incalculable heartache and financial harm to law-abiding consumers. We owe it to them to pursue these cases aggressively, making it clear that those who brazenly enrich themselves on the back of the American taxpayer, as these defendants allegedly did, will be held accountable for their crimes.”

The mailboxes and bank accounts were opened throughout southern California, including the cities of Newport Beach, Cypress, and La Habra in Orange County; and the cities of Alhambra, Azusa, Covina, Encino, Los Angeles, Montebello, North Hollywood, Rowland Heights, Temple City and Glendale in Los Angeles County.           

            The five defendants taken into custody late yesterday afternoon are:

  • Eduard Astvatsatryan, 34, of Glendale, who allegedly opened at least 17 bank accounts and 14 mailbox addresses in different identities using fraudulent Armenian passports;

  • Hripsime Avagyan, 24, of Burbank, who allegedly opened at least six bank accounts and seven mailbox addresses in different identities using fraudulent Armenian passports;

  • Armen Mkrtchyan, 46, of Glendale, who allegedly opened at least two bank accounts and two mailbox addresses in different identities using fraudulent Armenian passports;

  • Sargis “Sergio” Tabadzhyan, 54, of West Hollywood, who allegedly opened at least 13 bank accounts and seven mailbox addresses in different identities using fraudulent Armenian passports; and

  • Artash Stepanyan, 31, of Glendale, who allegedly opened at least 14 bank accounts and six mailbox addresses in different identities using fraudulent Armenian and Georgian passports;

The defendants who were arrested were held overnight and are scheduled to make their initial court appearances this afternoon in the United States Courthouse in Santa Ana.

Authorities continue to search for the other five defendants. They are:

  • Mkhitar Mkrtchyan, 43, of Sylmar, who allegedly opened at least two bank accounts and two mailbox addresses in different identities using fraudulent Armenian passports;

  • Karen Pogosian, 45, of Sun Valley, who allegedly opened at least two bank accounts and two mailbox addresses in different identities using fraudulent Armenian passports;

  • Konstantin Galstyan, 23, of Sylmar, who allegedly opened at least four bank accounts and two mailbox addresses in different identities using fraudulent Armenian passports;

  • Jane Doe, who allegedly opened at least eight bank accounts and six mailbox addresses in different identities using fraudulent Armenian passports; and

  • John Doe, who allegedly opened at least four bank accounts and two mailbox addresses in different identities using fraudulent Georgian passports.

Federal authorities are seeking the public’s help is apprehending these defendants. Anyone with information about these defendants is encouraged to contact IRS Criminal Investigation at (213) 200-3083 or HSI at (866) DHS-2-ICE.

            A criminal complaint contains allegations that a defendant has committed a crime. Every defendant is presumed to be innocent until and unless proven guilty in court.

The identity theft charges alleged in the 10 complaints each carry a statutory maximum sentence of 15 years in federal prison and a fine of up to $250,000.

            Yesterday’s arrests are part of an ongoing investigation being conducted by IRS Criminal Investigation, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. During yesterday’s operation, the federal agencies receive substantial assistance from the Los Angeles Police Department, the Los Angeles International Airport Police Department, the Glendale Police Department and the Santa Monica Police Department.

16-079
Topic: 
Financial Fraud
Identity Theft
Tax
Updated April 21, 2016