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Press Release

Five Charged in Theft of California Benefits for Low Income Families

For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, Southern District of California


SAN DIEGO – Five men were arrested and charged in connection with the theft of tens of thousands of dollars in public-assistance benefits from low-income families that need the funds to pay for food, housing and other necessities.

The defendants were arrested by a U.S. Secret Service-led task force as part of a three-day effort to crack down on this devastating and growing fraud in which California benefits are drained from recipients’ accounts almost immediately after the funds are dispersed by the state, typically early in the month. According to federal complaints, the defendants accomplished this by placing illegal devices known as skimmers on ATMs or a retailer's card-swiping machine to copy account information from state-issued Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards used by the recipients.

Two defendants – Constantin Irimia and Devonte Linell Pipkins - appeared in federal court this morning. Irimia was ordered detained; Pipkins was ordered released on a $35,000 bond secured by real property. The other defendants - Radu Grosu, Gabriel Ionita, and Richard Calin – are scheduled to appear in court Friday for detention hearings.

Ionita and Calin are codefendants; the other defendants are charged individually. All are charged with use of unauthorized access device fraud, which criminalizes the misuse of electronic account information contained on EBT cards issued to public assistance recipients in California and across the country. Three of the men were also found to be in possession of skimming devices, pinhole cameras, and tools for inserting the skimming devices into ATMs. 

One victim, a local single mother of four whose EBT account was drained in early June, said she learned that her benefits had been stolen when she went to the store later that day and found that the money she had been counting on to buy diapers and pay rent was gone.

“This kind of crime is extremely hard on people who can least afford to lose their benefits,” said U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman. “We are committed to working with all of our federal, state and local agency partners to identify perpetrators of EBT theft and relentlessly pursue justice for the victims.” Grossman thanked the prosecution team, the U.S. Secret Service and task force members for their excellent work on these cases.

“This type of fraud hurts everyday Americans who rely on government support to feed and care for their families,” said Jason Reynolds, Special Agent in Charge of the U.S. Secret Service’s San Diego Field Office. “The Secret Service is committed to protecting our nation’s financial systems from abuse, and we will continue to work alongside our law enforcement partners to ensure that those involved are held accountable.”

“The San Diego Police Department is a proud member of the USSS So-Cal Cyber Fraud Task Force and has been for over 20 years,” said San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit. “This operation targeted those taking advantage of San Diego residents who rely on public assistance for everyday needs. We are committed to this task force partnership and will continue to support any and all efforts to suppress fraud in any form throughout our city.”

“Shutting down this type of systematic fraud that steals food from the tables of families is a priority for the District Attorney’s Office,” said San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan. “Our office continues to be committed to providing assistance to this task force of state and federal partners who are working together to protect the most vulnerable in our community.”  

According to charging documents, here’s how the fraud works:

Benefits are distributed via electronic transfers to the state-issued EBT cards. The benefits are automatically distributed to the recipient’s EBT card on a designated day of the month - typically, in California, the first five days. The user can make cash withdrawals and payments using the card. To access their benefits to purchase eligible food items, the recipient swipes the card through a point-of-sale terminal, or inserts it into an ATM, which record the card number, date, time, and amount of the transaction. The recipient then enters his/her unique Personal Identification Number (PIN) into a keypad to complete the transaction.

According to a complaint, the U.S. Secret Service has gathered evidence indicating that members of what appear to be one or more criminal enterprises are stealing California EBT account information by installing skimmers on point-of-sale terminals, often at large-volume retailers like Walmart, in communities with higher concentrations of public benefit recipients. The skimmed data is then often re-encoded onto the magnetic strips of cards that members of the conspiracy use to make unauthorized withdrawals and purchases.

These re-encoded cards are sometimes referred to as “cloned” cards. Cloned cards can be a blank white plastic card, or another debit, credit, or gift card. Cloned cards may have names or numbers embossed on the physical face of the card. A common feature of cloned cards is that the account number encoded on the card’s magnetic strip will not match the number embossed on the card’s face. To facilitate the use of the stolen EBT benefits, members of the scheme will commonly put stickers bearing the account’s PIN on the physical cards, or access devices, that are swiped at a point-of-sale terminal, along with the account balance.

As outlined in the affidavits supporting the five arrests, individuals engaged in stealing EBT benefits have targeted point-of-sale terminals at large-volume stores in National City, Sherman Heights, and El Cajon to skim and thereby steal the EBT account information of local victims. 

According to the California Department of Social Services (CalDSS), almost $40 million has been stolen using compromised EBT account information since August 2022. Most of the stolen funds were obtained through unauthorized ATM withdrawals from victims’ CalWORKs benefits.  CalWORKS provides cash to eligible families with one or more children in the home.  Families that apply and qualify for ongoing CalWORKS assistance receive money each month to help pay for housing, food, and other necessary expenses.  CalWORKS, along with CalFresh, is distributed by CalDSS through the California Advantage EBT card.

U.S. Attorney Grossman thanked the many law enforcement partners whose work and dedication made this operation a success: The U.S. Secret Service, San Diego District Attorney’s Office, San Diego Police Department, San Diego Sheriff’s Department, U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General, California Department of Social Services, Homeland Security Investigations, National City Police Department, El Cajon Police Department, Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office, and the United States Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California. 

If you or someone you know has had your EBT benefits stolen, San Diego County’s Department of Health & Human Services Agency requires that the theft be reported within 10 days.  More information for San Diego County victims is available at:  

DEFENDANT                                   Case Number                         Age                Hometown                

Constantin Irimia                                23mj01955-JLB                      40                        Iasi City, Romania

Devonte Linell Pipkins                       23mj01963-JLB                      25                        Ecorse, Michigan       

Gabriel Ionita                                      23mj01973-WVG                   35                        Bucharest, Romania

Richard Calin                                      23mj01973-WVG                   23                        Bucharest, Romania

Radu Grosu                                         23mj02000-WVG                   35                        Rockville, Maryland


Use of Unauthorized Access Devices – Title 18, U.S.C., Section 1029(a)(2) (All Defendants)

Maximum penalty: Ten years in prison and $250,000 fine

Possession of Access Device-Making Equipment – Title 18, U.S.C., Section 1029(a)(4) (Irimia, Ionita, Calin)

Maximum penalty: Fifteen years in prison and $250,000 fine


U.S. Secret Service’s Southern California Cyber Fraud Task Force

San Diego District Attorney’s Office

San Diego Police Department

San Diego Sheriff’s Department

U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General

California Department of Social Services

Homeland Security Investigations

National City Police Department

El Cajon Police Department

Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office

United States Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California

*The charges and allegations contained in an indictment or complaint are merely accusations, and the defendants are considered innocent unless and until proven guilty. 



Assistant U. S. Attorney Sabrina L. Fève (619) 546-6786    

Updated June 7, 2023

Financial Fraud
Press Release Number: CAS23-0606-Irimia