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Florida Man Indicted for Identity Theft Using Counterfeit Access Devices

Florida Man Indicted for Identity Theft Using Counterfeit Access Devices

Identity theft and fraud are rampant these days. Just ask the poor folks in Florida who keep getting duped by fraudsters pretending to be them. The latest victim is the state itself, taken for millions of dollars by a man who allegedly filed for fraudulent COVID-19 relief funds using stolen personal information. Let’s break down what happened, what charges he faces, and what we can learn from this messy situation.

The Allegations

According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, a federal grand jury indicted Don V. Cisternino, 46, of Chuluota, Florida on multiple fraud charges in September 2022. The allegations? That he filed for over $7 million in COVID-19 relief funds using the stolen identities of various schools and businesses. Yikes!

Prosecutors claim Cisternino submitted fraudulent loan applications under the Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loan programs established by Congress to help folks impacted by the pandemic. Apparently he falsified payroll expenses and number of employees for the organizations, using their tax identification numbers without permission. Double yikes!

Once approved, the relief funds were deposited into bank accounts Cisternino controlled. He then transferred the money “to various foreign and domestic recipient bank accounts,” according to the allegations. Then poof! The money disappeared quicker than toilet paper off the shelves in March 2020.

The Charges

Cisternino faces some serious charges for his alleged relief fund scam:

  • Wire fraud
  • Aggravated identity theft
  • Illegal monetary transaction

The wire fraud counts accuse him of electronically transmitting fraudulent loan applications as part of the scheme. Each count carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.

The aggravated identity theft charges stem from Cisternino allegedly using the organizations’ tax identification numbers without authorization. Each of those counts carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 2 years in prison.

Finally, the illegal monetary transaction charges relate to Cisternino allegedly transferring the fraudulently obtained funds internationally. Each of those counts carries a maximum 10 year prison sentence.

All in all, if convicted on all counts, Cisternino could end up behind bars for a long time. Like decades long. Hope the millions were worth it, bud!

COVID Relief Fraud Trends

Unfortunately, stories like Cisternino’s have become all too common during the pandemic. The federal government allocated billions in COVID relief funds to help struggling businesses and citizens. And where there’s that much money flowing quickly, you can bet scammers will come running.

Some other COVID relief fraud cases:

  • A Texas man admitted to using fake debit cards encoded with stolen account information to make unauthorized withdrawals from victim accounts. He pleaded guilty to access device fraud and aggravated identity theft.
  • A Miami man pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit access device fraud after being busted using stolen credit card numbers to buy over $960,000 worth of postal money orders.
  • A South Florida man got 6 years in prison for a scheme where he submitted fraudulent loan applications under company names he registered himself. He collected over $4 million in COVID relief funds as part of the scam.
  • Another Florida man got 5 years behind bars for a scheme using falsified payroll records to apply for nearly $3 million in Paycheck Protection loans. He spent the money on lavish vacations and shopping sprees.

The list goes on. And those are just the scammers who got caught! Who knows how many more took advantage of lax oversight on relief programs to line their own pockets.

How to Protect Yourself

The big takeaway here? We all need to be extra vigilant about protecting our personal and financial information these days. Identity theft is rampant, and COVID created even more opportunities for fraudsters. Here are some tips:

  • Check your credit report regularly for any suspicious activity. Consider putting a credit freeze on your accounts to prevent criminals from opening new lines of credit under your name.
  • Never give out personal information over the phone or email if you did not initiate the contact. So many scams start with an unsolicited call or message.
  • Shred financial documents, credit card offers, and other sensitive mail before throwing it out. Dumpster diving is still a thing!
  • Use strong unique passwords on all accounts and enable multi-factor authentication when possible. This makes it much harder for thieves to break in, even if they have your password.
  • Be wary of COVID relief scams. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Do your research before sharing any sensitive data.

Stay vigilant out there, folks! Scammers and thieves are constantly coming up with new ways to steal your money and identity. But with good practices, we can make them work a lot harder. Don’t become the next victim of fraud like our poor Floridians!

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