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Members of Bergen ID theft ‘superstore’ in federal court

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BEHIND THE STORY: The final pins continue to fall in the federal probe of a Bergen County-based “crime superstore” that stole identities from people in Asia to get credit cards and bank loans that were used to buy fancy cars, fine whiskey and designer shoes:

UPDATE: Both Jung-Bong Lee, 38, of Palisades Park, and Jung-Sook Ko, a/k/a “Grace Lim,” 48, of Ridgefield, pleaded guilty on Nov. 18 in Newark before U.S. Magistrate Judge Patty Shwartz. Lee remained detained. Ko was released on $250,000 unsecured bond.

As a Palisades Park woman was admitting her role in the scheme, authorities today revealed that they had captured one of the organizers.

Seung-Ho “Peter” Noh, 51, was arrested in California on Sept. 26, after eluding federal authorities during a raid a full year earlier. U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael A. Shipp ordered him detained.

Also in court in Newark today was Sung-Sil “Jenny” Joh, 47, who was among dozens of people rousted from their beds early in the morning Sept. 16, 2010 by hundreds of federal and local investigators in Palisades Park, Tenafly, River Edge and elsewhere and brought to FBI headquarters

Forty-two of them were directly involved in the massive fraud ring, which bilked banks and other financial establishments by stealing the identities of Asian immigrants who worked in Guam and other American territories, federal authorities said.

One of those charged, Kang Hyok Choi of Long Island, was already in custody — awaiting trial for a triple murder in Tenafly. Detectives from the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office alerted the FBI after finding evidence of the ID theft ring on a computer they found in the house.

Another member of the scheme, In-Suk Joo, 61, of Clark, N.J., pleaded guilty last month to conspiring to purchase a Social Security card to commit fraud. So did Min-Soo “Chris” Son, who admitted to kiting checks to cover credit card charges run up by the crew.

The scheme was run by Sang-Hyun “Jimmy” Park, of Palisades Park, who pleaded guilty to his role in federal court in March.

Park was so brazen that he advertised in local Korean newspapers that “he and his co-conspirators could obtain driver’s licenses, credit cards, and money for their customers, virtually all of whom were of Korean descent,” according to a 138-page federal arrest complaint.

Colluding merchants, many of them Korean, helped Park’s group obtain cash by swiping credit cards for phantom goods and services, Fishman said. For what was known as a “kkang fee,” the collusive merchants charged the fraudulently obtained credit cards, although no transaction took place. As soon as the money landed in their bank accounts, the merchants passed the money up to Park, minus the fee.

Park’s group also used the cards to buy expensive merchandise and liquor, and withdrew money from accounts with insufficient funds before anyone noticed, the feds said. They also wrote checks to pay down credit cards and then charged them to the maximum, Fishman said.

In one case, ring members leased Lexuses or Mercedes, made one payment, then sold the cars, the FBI said.

The bills ended up going to people on the other side of the globe who had no idea what happened. The banks, in turn, took the losses.

“The activity in this instance was a virtual crime superstore, with one-stop shopping for a variety of criminal needs,” said FBI Special Agent Michael B. Ward, who heads the bureau’s Newark office. “The criminal activity was sophisticated, and the extent of the fraud committed by this group is believed to be substantial, if not staggering.”

The crew got Social Security cards from various brokers — most with the prefix 586 — issued to Chinese workers in American Samoa, Guam and Saipan. They sold the cards for $5,000 to $7,000 and then helped customers from in and around PalPark get driver’s licenses and other identification cards from various states.

Once they secured the IDs, the scam artists got credit cards and bank loans that they used to treat themselves to luxury cars, fine whiskey, designer shoes — and more, one of the defendants, 45-year-old Chun-O Kim, admitted during her guilty plea this summer.

A little finagling helped the group build credit scores to between 700 and 800, authorities said. With those numbers, they were able to open bank accounts and obtain credit cards, lines of credits and loans guaranteed by the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Kim, for instance, was the principal of a bogus firm called CB Development Company, which produced phony documents – such as counterfeit certificates of trade and fictitious tax returns – to secure lines of credit and commercial loans for herself and her co-conspirators, U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman said.

“In addition, Kim admitted that she obtained and used both genuine and counterfeit identity documents, such as Social security numbers and driver’s licenses belonging to other individuals, to obtain lines of credit and commercial loans in those names,” Fishman said, in a statement.

“After obtaining the money, Kim and her co-conspirators transferred the funds into their bank accounts so they could withdraw the cash and write checks.” he said.

Many of these lines of credit and loans were guaranteed by the United States Small Business Administration (SBA), which helps small businesses by guaranteeing loans issued by certain banks.

Kim admitted she collected up to 20 bogus credit cards to buy whatever she wanted, with no intention of paying the bills. She had help, authorities said: Nathan C. Buschman, 32, of Hopatcong, N.J., admitted in May that he was the manager of an Edgewater branch of Washington Mutual Bank branch (that later became JP Morgan Chase Bank) when he falsified documents that moved the SBA loans through without catching the bank’s attention.

One of the defendants, Yoon-Sang Kim of Allendale, was arrested in Fort Lee while driving a vehicle registered to his wife, authorities said. In the car, police found several counterfeit IDs with Kim’s photograph in other people’s names, some of which were used to open bogus bank accounts.

Authorities won’t say who tipped them off to the breadth of the operation, although some observers would put their money on Choi, who it’s believed struck a deal with local prosecutors for leniency in exchange for inside information about the crew.

Authorities said Choi, of Valley Stream, stole several credit cards from one of the victims, pulled $100,000 from the accounts, then flew to Los Angeles, where he was arrested on May 18, 2008, on a warrant out of Bergen County. Police said he was carrying $88,000 in cash, $14,000 in casino chips, 27 credit cards, two driver’s licenses, and two identification cards — none in his name — when he was arrested.

There’s plenty of praise to go around for bringing such a case — one that not only puts criminals behind bars but recovers a great deal of the money they stole. Fishman cited, among others, special agents from the SBA as well as investigators from the prosecutor’s office and the Englewood Police Department.

Prosecuting the intricate case were Assistant U.S. Attorneys Jane Yoon and Anthony Moscato of Fishman’s Criminal Division in Newark. Joh was released today after posting a $250,000 unsecured bond. Her sentencing is set for Feb. 16, 2012.

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