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15 arrested across L.A. County in crackdown on fraudulent benefit cards

Local and federal authorities have arrested 15 people in Los Angeles County suspected of cloning Electronic Benefit Transfer cards and using them to drain the funds of Southern California’s poorest residents, the Justice Department said Thursday.

More than 300 police and federal agents made the arrests Wednesday while monitoring about 20 ATMs across the country, according to a statement from the US Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles. The arrests — part of an anti-fraud effort dubbed Operation Urban Justice — led to the return of 429 counterfeit EBT cards and $129,000 in cash, authorities said.

Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore said in a statement that 11 of the 15 people arrested were Romanian citizens. The Romanian National Police was involved in the operation, along with US social services and law enforcement agencies.

James Huse, special agent in charge of the Secret Service’s LA field office, said the arrests show “how a sophisticated and elaborate criminal scheme can be disrupted and dismantled.”

Five of those arrested — Adrian Corches, Neveah Rosa Ybarra, Mihai Cristea, Sandu Dumitrescu and Constantin Rotaru — appeared in court for the first time on Thursday afternoon, according to a spokesman for the US law firm in Los Angeles.

“By stealing public benefits with counterfeit EBT cards, the defendant in these cases looted the accounts of some of the poorest residents of our community – people who need these benefits to survive,” said US Atty. Martin Estrada. “These actions are part of a larger attack on the EBT system, one that has caused tens of millions of dollars in losses.”

In the past year and a half, EBT fraud has become widespread across the country. In the early morning of the first few days of the month — shortly after the state deposits people’s food and cash aid into their EBT cards — criminals who previously stole the card details head to the ATM to withdraw the cash.

Los Angeles County officials say more than $19.6 million in EBT benefits were stolen in 2022 — more than 20 times the amount stolen in 2021.

LAPD and Secret Service agents arrested three Romanian nationals allegedly involved in EBT fraud on February 2 in Tarzana and Hollywood. They were charged in federal court with bank fraud, aggravated identity theft and unlawful use of an unauthorized access device.