(Photo: VALERY HACHE AFP/Getty Images)
Gary Strauss and Christine Dugas, USA TODAY
An international credit fraud ring racked up more than $200 million in fraudulent charges to acquire luxury cars, gold and high-end goods, and funnel millions in cash overseas, federal prosecutors said Tuesday.
The elaborate scheme -- one of the largest ever uncovered by the U.S. Justice Department -- started small but eventually spread to 28 states and eight countries.
Prosecutors revealed the charges in a criminal indictment against 18 conspirators and say they supported a massive network of co-conspirators that's expected to lead to more indictments.
The scam began in 2003 as false identities were used to create credit profiles with major credit bureaus, prosecutors say. Some were completely fictitious; others were created using Social Security numbers matched to someone with the same name. In other instances, fake pay stubs and tax returns were used to get credit cards.
The conspirators pumped up their credit worthiness by making small purchases and paying off the charges, enabling them to run up large purchases that were never repaid.
By 2012, they had created more than 7,000 false identities to obtain more than 25,000 credit cards. Millions in cash were wired to Pakistan, India, the United Arab Emirates, Canada, China and Japan.
Losses are pegged at more than $200 million but are expected to grow. "Due to the massive scope of the fraud ... loss calculations are ongoing, and final losses may grow substantially,'' James Simpson, a special agent with the FBI, said in a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court.
At least eight in the group -- Babar Quresh, Muhammad Shafiq, Ijaz Butt, Qaiser Khan, Shafique Ahmed, Muhammad Naveed, Khawaja Ikram and Nasreen Akhtar -- have been unemployed since 2008.
Qureshi and Shafiq were identified as the group's ringleaders. Prosecutors linked Shafiq and his brother, Naveed, to 464 credit cards and nearly $2.6 million in losses.
Some of the defendants set up 80 sham companies with no legitimate business operations, including jewelry stores in Jersey City, N.J. Those businesses accepted credit card payments and provided bogus credit reports that helped inflate fake cardholders' credit ratings.
Identity theft experts say given the extensive use of fake identities, the case is unusual. "They take disparate pieces of personal identifying information and create a bionic person," says Adam Levin, chairman and co-founder of Credit.com and Identity Theft 911.
The fact that they could take existing social security numbers and combine them with a different person's name shows that system is not working.
"We have to come up with new, unique identifiers," Levin says. "If they have the social security numbers of other people, have those numbers been resold to other people? This is the crime that keeps on giving."
At least 13 of the defendants were in custody Tuesday. The charges carry prison terms of up to 30 years and fines of up to $1 million.