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Men admit roles in Asian ID theft ring that made millions

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot

YOU READ IT HERE FIRST: Two men admitted their roles in a sophisticated identity theft ring, based in Palisades Park, that made millions of dollars by distributing counterfeit Social Security cards, driver’s licenses and passports for Asian immigrants in exchange for hefty fees.

Crew members used the money and credit to buy booze, designer clothing and other merchandise that was easy to sell on the black market or to lease pricey cars — by Lexus and Mercedes, among others — they then sold after making only one payment, the government said.

Monday’s pleas came quickly after a Cliffside Park man admitted his involvement last month.

Chul-Hoe Choi, 50, of Palisades Park, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Newark to aggravated identity theft, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, and unlawfully producing an identification document. Jong-Kwan Hong, 67, of Westbury, pleaded guilty to similar charges.

Federal authorities said Choi and Hong conspired with Sang-Hyun “Jimmy” Park and others to obtain Social Security cards beginning with the prefix “586” – which are usually issued to Asians employed in American Samoa, Guam, Saipan and other American territories.

The cases against them fell into place when investigators  tagged Yu-Je Jo, 37, as a broker in the enterprise. As part of his plea agreement, Jo agreed to forfeit $558,635 and to cooperate with the government in its investigation.

All were arrested last September in a coordinated law enforcement takedown of 53 people accused of participating in Park’s operation. The FBI led the charge, which include hundreds of local and state law enforcement officers.

Detectives from the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office got onto the trail after arresting Kang-Hyok Choi and charging him with killing an associate and two of the victim‘s family members in Tenafly in 2008. The men apparently had been arguing over how to split profits from the illicit enterprise.

During the investigation, prosecutor’s investigators seized a computer that led them directly to Park’s crew.

Investigators then plucked an unidentified co-conspirator who bought a genuinely issued U.S. Social Security card and a counterfeit Korean passport while working for the government.

After getting their hands on the Social Security cards — issued to Chinese nationals – Park and his crew then sold them for $5,000 to $7,000. Meanwhile, they obtained other identification, real and counterfeit, for their customers.

But it didn’t end there.

The group helped boost customers’ credit scores and had them obtain bank accounts and obtain lines of credit, as well as federally-insured loans, according to a complaint filed by the FBI with U.S. District Court in Newark.

They built up the credit scores, authorities said, by adding the identity to an authorized user who agreed to the scheme in return for a fee. Scores for the bogus IDs shot up to from 700 to 800 as a result.

Park and his co-conspirators also got collusive merchants to process credit card transactions through swipe machines even though none occurred. In exchange, the merchants got what’s known as a “kkang fee.”

U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman called the scope of the fraud “pretty remarkable.”

He hailed agents from the FBI and IRS, as well as those from the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Bergen County Prosecutor John L. Molinelli, whose detectives‘ work made the case possible.

Choi’s sentencing is set for Sept. 26. He’ll remain in federal custody until then. Hong, meanwhile, was released on $250,000 bond, with sentencing scheduled for Oct. 4.

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