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Dozens indicted in identity-theft scheme

The FBI says three California residents were the ringleaders of an online 'phishing' scam to get bank account information. At least $1.5 million was stolen, authorities said.

October 08, 2009|Andrew Blankstein

More than 50 people have been indicted in Southern California, Las Vegas and Charlotte, N.C., in connection with a "phishing" scheme to steal bank account information from thousands of victims in the United States, authorities said Tuesday.

The federal grand jury indictment, which was unsealed Wednesday, names 53 suspects -- 33 of whom have already been arrested -- as well as 47 unindicted co-conspirators from Egypt, said FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller.

All of those who were indicted face charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud. Some face additional federal charges, including bank fraud, identity theft, conspiracy to commit computer fraud and unauthorized access to protected computers in connection with fraudulent bank transfers and domestic and international money laundering.

Among those named in the indictment are suspects from Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties.

The alleged ringleaders, all California residents, were identified by the FBI as Kenneth Joseph Lucas, 25, of Los Angeles; Nichole Michelle Merzi, 24, of Oceanside; and Jonathan Preston Clark, 25, whose residence was not given.

The suspects are accused of posing as legitimate bank representatives and sending e-mails to victims, seeking to "update" their records. After the victims sent their personal information, the suspects allegedly withdrew money from their bank accounts.

The scheme included the recruiting of "runners" to set up bank accounts where stolen money from Bank of America and Wells Fargo could be transferred and withdrawn.

At least $1.5 million was withdrawn from victims' bank accounts, Eimiller said. Some of that money was transferred to the individuals operating in Egypt. Eimiller said Egyptian authorities would be seeking charges against the suspects in that country.

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andrew.blankstein@latimes.com

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