UPDATED: 3:50 p.m. ET, Sept. 11:
A fourth person has been charged in an alleged elaborate scheme to steal the identities of people who died in the condo towers that collapsed in south Florida in June. Three others had previously been arrested and charged for their alleged roles in the scams they are accused of conducting in order to purchase luxury items from high-end retails stores in and around suburban Miami.
Nelson Ronaldo Garcia-Medina was identified as the fourth suspect in the alleged fraud ring that resulted in the accused spending lavishly at places like Medusa, Versace and Louboutin, as well as other goods from Target. The Associated Press reported that Garcia-Medina may not be the last person involved to be arrested and charged.
Garcia-Medina, 20, is the younger brother of Betsy Alexandra Cacho-Medina, who was arrested on Wednesday along with Rodney Choute, 38, and Kimberly Michelle Johnson and charged with multiple counts of identity fraud, organized scheme to defraud, as well as a host of other felonies, according to the Miami Herald.
Like the others, Garcia-Medina is also accused of stealing the identities of victims who died in the Champlain Towers South condo collapse in the town of Surfside. It was unclear how much money Garcia-Medina is accused of spending in the alleged scam.
However, Cacho-Medina, Choute and Johnson allegedly stole at least $45,000 from the Surfside victims. They tried to make off with another $67,000 but were caught by law enforcement. Officials say the trio popped on their radar after a relative of one of the victims began to see fraudulent charges to the bank account of her sister, who died when the condo collapsed in late June.
The alleged scamming trio purchased a $375 pair of Medusa sandals, a $1,700 Versace purse, an $1,000 pair of Christian Louboutin designer footwear, as well as a host of items from Target. They are also accused of making calls to Barclays Bank to get replacement cards using a victim’s name and taking advantage of surviving victims by calling FEMA’s customer assistance hotline and changing addresses of victims to their own.
Police tracked down the accused identity thieves by conducting surveillance operations near their homes. They also used GPS trackers to follow the alleged scammers as purchases were made all around Miami-Dade.
“These individuals appear to be very skilled identity thieves,” said State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle told the Miami Herald.
Medina will be held on a $1 million bond, Johnson will be held on a $500,000 bond and Choute will be held on a $430,000 bond.
Champlain Towers South condo in Miami, Florida collapsed in the early morning hours of June 24. Investigators believe water penetration and corrosion to the reinforced steel caused long-term degradation to the building’s structural support. At least 98 people died in the collapse.
Identity theft is a problem that many people are not aware of but should be. Thirty-three percent of U.S. adults have experienced identity theft. There were 1.4 million reported cases in 2020 alone. Married women were the most common victims. According to the FTC, $3.3 billion was lost to identity theft in 2020, up from $1.8 billion in 2019. The pandemic also opened up other opportunities for thieves through robocalls and phishing email scams.
To protect yourself from identity theft, remember to secure your emails, don’t leave a paper trail unless needed and never let your credit or bank cards out of your sight. The more precautions you take, the less likely a scammer will find your information.