Crime & Courts

SC judge sentences Cuban leader of Miami-based ID theft ring to 9 years in prison

John Monk

A S.C. federal judge Wednesday sentenced the leader of a Miami-based theft ring to nine years in prison for his key role in a multi-state identify theft and credit card skimming ring.

“This is a serious offense — very elaborate,” said U.S. District Court Judge Mary Lewis. “This is the kind of thing that makes everybody concerned about identity theft.”

Under Jose “Pepon” Rodriguez Espinosa, 27, of Miami, bands of Cuban-born criminals fanned out over the Southeast to hide devices called “skimmers” on gasoline pumps, Assistant U.S. Attorney Bill Day told Lewis.

The hidden skimmers then wirelessly would transmit customers’ credit card information, including their zip codes and PINs, to the cell phones of nearby gang members, Day said.

The stolen identity information then would be sent to Florida, where other criminals would manufacture counterfeit credit cards and other false identification. With those phony cards, still other low-level criminals — dubbed “shoppers” — would visit Sam’s Club and Walmart outlets where they bought hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of gift cards, according to evidence. The gang then would sell the gift cards at a discount to make money.

Espinosa is the first “high-up” in the scam to be arrested, Day told Lewis. Up until now, S.C. law enforcement only has been able to catch low-level gang members putting skimmers on gas pumps.

Another theft-ring leader, Alejandro Solis Yanes, fled the country to Cuba, Day told Lewis. In all, about 30 immigrants — all from the Cuban town of Santa Clara — were involved in the scam, Day said.

“It seems to be a cottage industry there but it doesn’t mean that all Cubans are doing that,” Day said.

The case against Espinosa and 21 other gang members started in South Carolina in 2014, when a S.C. Highway Patrol trooper caught a low-level gang member with a load of counterfeit credit cards during an Orangeburg County traffic stop.

Secret Service agents then began to work the case, and agents developed an informant who helped prosecutors get evidence against the crime group’s higher-ups, including Espinosa.

Over the years, the gang has used stolen identities to make thousands of phony credit cards and steal millions from more than 200 banks that issue credit cards, according to Day. The gang operated in South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, Michigan, Texas, Florida and Oklahoma.

Defense lawyer Jack Swerling of Columbia told Judge Lewis that Espinosa didn’t object to the nine-year sentence. He could have received up to 20 years.

Speaking through a court translator, Espinosa told Lewis, “I really want to apologize to the victims, to the United States and to its citizens for what happened. I would like to find a way of paying for the damage that I’ve caused.”

Lewis told him, “It’s scary to me that you could put something on a gas pump ... that could transfer information to a cell phone.”

John Monk has covered courts, crime, politics, public corruption, the environment and other issues in the Carolinas for more than 40 years. A U.S. Army veteran who covered the 1989 American invasion of Panama, Monk is a former Washington correspondent for The Charlotte Observer. He has covered numerous death penalty trials, including that of the Charleston church killer, Dylann Roof.